NEW JERSEY: Court Lacks Jurisdiction To Award Cultural Damages

Award of Damages for Defamation  would Entangle the  Jury Excessively in Religious Questions

New Jersey, December 31, 2009: Trial Court dismissed the defamation complaint of against defendants, The Jewish Press, Inc., Oleg Rivkin, Richard Scharlat and Gabrielle Tito, for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, pursuant to Rule 4:6-2(a). The judge concluded that plaintiff’s claims could not be resolved without excessive entanglement by the court and jury in issues of religious doctrine and practice. Plaintiff asserts that because the Law Division focused on numerous factual issues that were irrelevant to the resolution of his defamation complaint, the judge erroneously concluded that his claim could not be resolved by applying neutral principles of law. We reject plaintiff’s contention that when a cause of action is secular in nature, and the defendants are not religious figures, there can be no excessive entanglement. Where, as here, a jury cannot evaluate plaintiff’s cause of action without developing a keen understanding of religious doctrine, and without applying such religious doctrine to the facts presented, the excessive entanglement that the First Amendment seeks to avoid is squarely presented. Thus, we conclude that neither the secular nature of the cause of action nor the secular professions of the defendants serve as a per se bar to a finding of a lack of subject matter jurisdiction. We affirm.

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