Arbitration is one type of alternative dispute resolution. However, a regular arbitration is generally held as the result of the parties having previously contracted to go through arbitration in the event of a dispute. The parties then select and arbitrators or a panel of arbitrators in accordance with the terms of the contract. The matter is entirely secular.
In a religious arbitration, the parties choose to have their dispute decided by a religious tribunal instead of a secular arbitrator(s). The religious arbitrator(s) is instead selected from such candidates as a rabbi, a minister, or a private individual who provides services as a religious arbitrator.
Religious tribunals are considered to be arbitration bodies in the United States, for purposes of the civil (not criminal) legal system. Arbitration decisions are, for the most part, binding. Therefore, religious arbitration allows parties to go outside the bounds of normal dispute resolution to have it decided by the tenets of their faith.
Religious arbitration does share some things in common with regular arbitration. They have similar benefits, some of those being the relative low cost, speed and efficiency of arbitration as compared to a case in court. Court cases are often open to the public, but arbitration sessions are not, which affords confidentiality to the parties, who may not wish to have their private disputes exposed.
Also, the complex rules of procedure used in cases litigated in court are not used in arbitrations. Although arbitration proceedings do follow rules, they are simpler and more flexible than those used in court. Finally, the chances for settling a case in either a regular or religious arbitration are better than they are for a case litigated in court.
On the other hand, these benefits may be a double-edged sword which prove to have negative effects for the parties to the arbitration. The privacy of arbitration proceedings means that there is less transparency. The parties are not bound by the strict rules of court, but those rules often provide safeguards for the parties to a dispute.
For example, without sufficient evidence as is accounted for by rules of court procedure, the arbitrator may render a decision based on insufficient evidence, and this may lead to an unjust outcome. Judges in court rely on prior court decisions to help them decide their cases, but arbitrators do not do this, which means arbitration decisions can be all over the place, giving different decisions on similar issues. In short, although the advantages of arbitration are compelling, there may also be good reason to have matters decided in court.
Moreover, abuses that may be perpetuated within a religious system may not be brought to justice, by avoiding the court system and using religious officials as arbitrators. Finally, allowing some parties to resolve disputes with religious arbitrators creates a system where not everyone is held to the same law.
Those who support religious arbitration hold that it is less adversarial than regular arbitration, and allows people of similar religious beliefs to us them as a guided structure in resolving their disputes.
It may be true that in arbitrations where religious matters are in dispute, a religious arbitrator may be more well equipped to preside. Civil court judges are meant to be secular, and are not necessarily informed regarding unfamiliar religious systems. Of course, if the matter is not particularly religious in nature, that argument does not prevail.
There are many critics of religious arbitration, who feel that it allows religious institutions to evade the law by having religious officials decide legal issues. Individuals who are stuck within a religious system (possibly unwillingly), and are forced to resolve disputes via religious arbitration, might find themselves without recourse when secular decision-makers are not available to them.
The nature of religious arbitration makes it less likely to be reviewed by a court on appeal. This is because the freedom of the freedom of religion guaranteed by the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. If a religious arbitration decision is appealed to a court, it is even more likely to be denied than the appeal of a regular arbitration decision, because judges do not want to interfere in religious decisions and possibly interfere with the religious freedom of the individuals involved.
A judge’s involvement could also end up being interpreted as preferring religion in general, preferring a lack of religion in general, or preferring one religion over another.
Since religious arbitration decisions are so unlikely to be heard on appeal, participation in a religious arbitration essentially removes the possibility of handling your dispute in court. You can be compelled to participate in the arbitration if there are valid contractual grounds requiring you to do so.
It is important to be careful when signing any contract. Be aware of what you are agreeing to if you are party to a contract that requires religious arbitration for the resolution of disputes. As long as the contract, and the clause requiring arbitration are valid, you will be bound by the arbitration clause and prevented from resolving your dispute in court, regardless of whether the dispute is religious or secular in nature.
As stated above, arbitration decisions are unlikely to be heard by a court on appeal, because they are meant to be binding. This is even more true with religious arbitration, due to judges’ unwillingness to interfere with matters of freedom of religion. There are very limited grounds on which arbitration decisions may be appealed.
Religious arbitration can be a perplexing process, even more so than regular arbitration. There are many factors to consider, and a business lawyer can help you determine how to proceed.