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Litigants turn to faith-based mediation to stay out of court

Litigants turn to faith-based mediation to stay out of court

This world is not Alexander Chiong’s home. Why should its justice system resolve his legal disputes?

For some people of faith, civil disputes can present a real emotional and spiritual challenge, especially when the dispute is with someone of the same faith. For Chiong, the argument was with the mother of his teenage son. He wanted the child in an A school in western Broward. She wanted full custody.

Before they ended up in court, she recommended arbitration, which is not unusual. They found former Broward Circuit Judge John P. Contini, a mediator who has never been shy about sharing his Christian faith.

No one keeps statistics on it, but some lawyers say faith-based mediation is catching on in South Florida, offering religious believers a chance to resolve their disputes without involving courts, judges, juries and lawyers — “the world,” in religious terms, distinct from the faith of their fathers.

“They don’t care about your drama. They don’t have time to get to know you or your kid,” Chiong said about the secular justice system. “When you go into these things you have resentment. You come in angry and bitter. You’re very emotional at the time.”

But when a mediator shares the faith of people involved in a legal conflict, walls come down that might stay up in other circumstances.

“I couldn’t bring up faith as a judge,” Contini said. “I’d get in trouble for it. I had to water it down. But now I can just point to the words of Jesus — settle your disputes with your adversary while you are on your way to court.”

Chiong ended up enrolling his son in the west Broward school he wanted, and he and his ex share custody of their son.

“At the end of the day, if we’re both on the same page in terms of faith, we have an agreement on the foundation of what the family needs,” Chiong said.

In the Jewish community, turning to faith-based mediation is more formal, said Robert Stok, a partner at the Fort Lauderdale Stok Kon and Braverman law firm. Large orthodox Jewish communities have something called a “Beis Din,” a Jewish court, and one of the largest in the country is in Miami-Dade.

In recent years, Stok’s firm has increasingly sent its clients to the Beis Din of South Florida to resolve civil conflicts. “It’s considered a sin under Jewish law to take another Jew to secular court,” he said. Resolving conflicts on common, religious ground allows litigants to honor the outcome with less resentment, he said. “It does eliminate acrimony in the community. It’s a less adversarial way to accomplish this goal.”

Beis Dins are best known for being the venue for Jewish divorces, which do not work the same as their secular counterparts. Under Jewish law, a woman must receive a release called a “get” in order to be free from the commitment of an otherwise dissolved marriage.

When a man refuses, the Beis Din can apply social pressure to change his mind. “To someone who is religious, this is an important thing,” Stok said.

Religious arbitration is less common among Muslims, but even there it appears to be growing, said Hassan Shibly of Muslim Legal in Tampa.

“Faith-based conflict resolution gets a bad name,” he said. “People think it’s religion forcing itself on unwilling people. But you’re not in faith-based mediation unless you agree to it, and  if you are a faith-based person, then you really believe your principles come from the divine.”

Read the complete article here.

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