(CN) - A North Carolina man may get to annul his 12-year marriage because his wife participated in an unconsummated Islamic wedding ceremony months before she married him, a state appeals court ruled.
Juma Mussa married Nikki Palmer-Mussa in November 1997. But earlier in 1997, Nikki participated in an Islamic wedding ceremony with Khalil Braswell. Though they lived together in Maryland, the pair did not consummate the marriage and never obtained a marriage license.
Nikki ended her marriage to Braswell according to Islamic law by returning the dowry and declaring that she was divorced. She did not receive a judicial divorce or annulment, believing that the marriage had started and ended under Islamic law.
She met and married Mussa after returning to North Carolina later in the year.
In 2009, after the couple had three children, Mussa challenged the existence of his marriage to Nikki. Mussa and Nikki disagreed as to whether she told him about the Islamic marriage before their wedding.
A trial court refused Mussa's request to annul the marriage on the grounds of bigamy, but the North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed last week.
"The dispositive issue is whether the defendant's first marriage was void ab initio or merely voidable because of the status of the person who performed the ceremony," Judge Ann Marie Calabria wrote for the court. "Mr. Braswell's friend, Kareem, who performed the ceremony, was not an imam, an Islamic religious leader. His primary profession was construction. He was not even a member of the church staff or employed by the church."
North Carolina law states, however, that these facts do not void the first marriage.
"The well-established law in North Carolina confirms that only bigamous marriages are void and all other marriages are voidable," Calabria wrote. "Furthermore, the court has uniformly held 'that a marriage, without a license required by statute, is valid.' Therefore, even though defendant and Mr. Braswell did not have a marriage license and the ceremony failed to meet statutory requirements, the marriage is merely voidable."
"Defendant's marriage to Mr. Braswell was voidable, but defendant never took any action to terminate the marriage. As such, the marriage was still valid when defendant married plaintiff," she added. "Therefore, the marriage between plaintiff and defendant is void."
Judge Wanda Bryant dissented from the opinion.
"Plaintiff's direct evidence failed to establish the existence of a valid prior marriage as a result of the early 1997 ceremony," Bryant wrote. "Therefore, plaintiff's claim that his marriage to defendant was void ab initio cannot prevail."
"Further, though perhaps not a part of plaintiff's direct evidence, the record reflects that the early 1997 Islamic /marriage plaintiff alleged was valid ended in divorce in a manner recognized under Islamic law," he added. "Accordingly, I dissent."
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