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David v. Funti

Description:  A New York bishop is challenging a trial court's unconstitutional interference in church affairs. 

A church steeple
Tuesday, Jul 9, 2024

NEW YORK – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys, together with attorneys from Nelson Madden Black, filed an opening brief Monday with the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, First Judicial Department, in David v. Funti, a case in which the lower court unconstitutionally stepped into church affairs.

At issue in the case is whether Bishop Anba David officiated a marriage sacrament between a mother and father after he baptized their son at St. Mary & St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church, a New York City church within the bishop’s jurisdiction. The bishop answered that religious question, filing an affidavit in court that said he blessed the mother and father but did not—and could not—marry them. New York recognizes religious marriages as legally binding.

A trial court in a putative divorce action, however, refused to give credit to the bishop’s answer; enforced subpoenas targeting Bishop David, the local priest, the local church, and the diocese; and subjected Coptic clergy to three days of interrogation about church doctrine, law, and practice, with potentially more to come. Attorneys explain that, in so doing, the trial court violated the First Amendment in myriad ways, ignored precedent, and effectively denied that churches have autonomy in religious matters.

“The First Amendment guarantees the authority and religious liberty of churches, and only churches, not civil courts, can decide whether a religious marriage occurred,” said ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch. “We are urging the court to respect this church’s religious autonomy, credit the bishop’s word saying that no religious marriage occurred, and end these unconstitutional proceedings against the bishop, local priest, church, and diocese.”

As the brief explains, the Coptic sacrament of marriage is a quintessentially religious matter grounded in church doctrine, practice, and tradition; only churches, not civil courts, can decide whether a religious marriage occurred, and civil courts must defer to the bishop’s religious ruling that no marriage took place.

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.

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ABOUT John Bursch

John Bursch is senior counsel and vice president of appellate advocacy with Alliance Defending Freedom. Bursch has argued 12 U.S. Supreme Court cases and more than 30 state supreme court cases since 2011, and a recent study concluded that among all frequent Supreme Court advocates who did not work for the federal government, he had the 3rd highest success rate for persuading justices to adopt his legal position. Bursch served as solicitor general for the state of Michigan from 2011-2013. He has argued multiple Michigan Supreme Court cases in eight of the last ten terms and has successfully litigated hundreds of matters nationwide, including six with at least $1 billion at stake. As part of his private firm, Bursch Law PLLC, he has represented Fortune 500 companies, foreign and domestic governments, top public officials, and industry associations in high-profile cases, primarily on appeal. He received his J.D. magna cum laude in 1997 from the University of Minnesota Law School and is admitted to practice in numerous federal district and appellate courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.