In the closing days of the New York State legislative session late last month, among a flurry of last minute bills passed, was one that will clearly allow Batei Dinim (Rabbinical Courts) to operate on Sundays.
Introduced by Senator Simcha Felder in the Senate, and in the Assembly by Assemblymembers Michael Simanowitz, Judiciary Chair Helene Weinstein, and David Weprin, the bill makes clear that an arbitration proceeding, unlike a court proceeding, can take place on a Sunday.
Although New York state law clearly prohibits ordinary judicial proceedings on Sundays (and on Saturdays if any of the parties observe Saturday as a holy day), the law was ambiguous whether that prohibition extended to arbitration and mediation proceedings, which include Dinei Torah. However, the courts of New York have interpreted the law as prohibiting arbitrations on Sundays no less than judicial proceedings.
This interpretation has impacted Orthodox Jews and Batei Dinim especially hard. Parties to a Din Torah who are busy Monday through Friday at their jobs, and who obviously cannot participate in any Din Torah on Shabbos, may have little option to participate in a Bais Din proceeding other than on Sunday. To foreclose Sunday arbitration proceedings, as the New York statute was interpreted as doing, made it extremely difficult for Batei Dinim to operate at a convenient time for all parties.
Agudath Israel has had a longstanding interest in this issue. In 2013 Agudath Israel filed a friend of the court brief in a case appealing a lower court ruling that was challenged due to a Din Torah judgment having being rendered on a Sunday. The brief before the appellate court argued that the statute banning court proceedings on Sunday should not be read to apply to arbitration and religious courts. Indeed, Agudath Israel argued, such reading would render the statute unconstitutional.
Unfortunately, in 2016, the Second Division appellate court ruled otherwise, invalidating a Bais Din ruling rendered after Sunday proceedings, and thereby opening the floodgates for legal challenges to any Din Torah held on a Sunday.
The legislature has now finally resolved the matter by amending the law to make clear that the prohibition against Sunday proceedings applies only to judicial proceedings, not arbitration.
On the Senate side, Senator Simcha Felder took the lead, as he so often does on issues affecting the rights of Orthodox Jews. In the Assembly, the Agudath Israel New York Government Affairs team worked closely with the Assembly Judiciary Committee under the leadership of Assemblymember Helene Weinstein, even bringing to their attention the Agudath Israel 2013 brief and the subsequent appellate court ruling.
The bill now awaits the signature of Governor Cuomo to take effect as law.
“This new legislation rectifies an egregious form of discrimination against Orthodox Jews in New York,” commented Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel. “The notion that a Din Torah, fully participated in by all relevant parties, could be rendered null and void simply because it took place on a Sunday, is deeply offensive on a conceptual level, and deeply damaging on a practical level.
“Now, thanks to the leadership of Senator Felder, and Assemblymembers Simanowitz, Weinstein and Weprin, this blot on New York law is on the verge of being erased. We look forward to having Governor Cuomo sign the bill and put an end to this intolerable state of affairs.”