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Like all experienced mediators, Kelly Bennett draws on sophisticated dispute resolution techniques to find common ground between feuding parties. But she also calls upon a higher power to get results. “We invite the Lord into the process and seek his direction,” explains Bennett, who opens each mediation with a prayer and often asks the parties before her to read relevant passages from the scriptures. Bennett is the founder of Christian Dispute Resolution Professionals Inc., a mediation and arbitration provider that uses biblical principles of justice and reconciliation to settle business disputes. The 5-year-old, Orange County, Calif.-based firm has a roster of almost 40 neutrals, including attorneys, law school professors, retired judges and pastors. The target demographic: Christian businesspeople. “The Bible says that Christians are not to sue one another in a court of law,” says Bennett. “Our goal was to provide the highest-end service available out there with the best neutrals in the Christian arena, so that Christian businesses and individuals now had no excuse to wind up in the secular courts.” Christian Dispute Resolution Professionals is one of several mediation and arbitration providers with a religious bent that have grown alongside the country’s overall movement toward alternatives to the public court system. While these ecclesiastical ADR organizations are not nearly as popular or widespread as their secular counterparts, proponents insist that their spiritual focus and respect for community ethics make them ideal forums for settling disputes. “The Christian mediation is very much centered around biblical mandates of forgiveness and reconciliation and love,” says Steven Wood, a partner at Walnut Creek, Calif.’s Stoddard Bergquist & Wood and a member of the Christian Legal Society. “They start reading Scripture, talking about resolution and prayer; by the time you get done with that everyone’s hearts are softened and working toward a resolution rather than fighting or hurting the other person.” While Wood represents the majority of his clients in secular mediations, he recommends a biblical standards-based mediation to all his Christian clients who have disputes. He also encourages his Christian clients to write such ADR providers into their pre-dispute arbitration contracts whenever they make deals. Similar to arbitrations conducted through organizations like the American Arbitration Association or JAMS, the rulings of religious ADR providers are legally binding. The neutrals balance state, federal and local laws with the tenets of their faith in crafting a settlement or a decision. The combination of religion and dispute resolution is not exactly a new concept. Pastors, rabbis and other religious officials have long acted as informal mediators, resolving conflicts between members of their congregations. Jay Folberg, a professor of dispute resolution at the University of San Francisco School of Law, has trained numerous members of the clergy in mediation techniques over the years. “People tend to go in time of conflict to those they mutually trust,” says Folberg. “So ministers not infrequently are asked by their parishioners to help them out, particularly in family disputes. Having mediation skills is a real plus and a great service.” In some cases, the role has been more formal. The Beth Din, or Jewish rabbinical court, is described in detail in the Bible and the Talmud. That tradition lives on through the Beth Din of America, established in New York in 1960 and currently one of the most prominent such organizations in the country, with a panel of about 20 rabbis. “For people in the Jewish community it gives the comfort of things being handled in accordance with age-old traditions of Jewish law, practice and procedure,” explains Rabbi Jonathan Reiss, the director of the organization. While the Beth Din of America initially focused on specialized matters not available in the country’s public courts, like Jewish law divorces, it has recently expanded into commercial disputes. That’s meant finding arbitrators that are versed in both Jewish law and the customs of the business world. “A concerted effort was made to make sure that this Beth Din would be in touch with the realities of the marketplace,” says Reiss, who is a former real estate and corporate lawyer at New York-based Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton. GROWTH IN COMMERCIAL CASES The Beth Din of America’s bread and butter is still the hundreds of Jewish law divorces it handles every year, Reiss acknowledges. But the organization has grown its commercial caseload from two or three disputes a year to about 30 disputes a year — many in the $1 million range. Among the many disputes that come through the door are real estate cases, securities cases, partnership disputes and employment disputes. Reiss attributes the growth to both a resurgence of interest in Orthodox tenets within the Jewish community and to the general appetite for alternative methods of dispute resolution. Despite this growing popularity there’s some concern that people might find themselves unwittingly roped into a religious forum that doesn’t represent their values, especially since religious ADR providers are often written into pre-dispute arbitration clauses. “Given the growth of other forms of arbitration and mediation, it’s gotten a little tricky to be sure that people stepping into that system know what they’re getting,” says USF’s Folberg. “It’s fine if within your church or religious sect you want to agree to that, but if you’re not part of that religious sect, it’s very important that you be informed of what you’re getting into.” Religious ADR providers say it’s extremely rare for a nonbeliever to involuntarily end up in their forum, since a party needs to consent to use the service once a dispute has begun or through a pre-dispute contract. In a 1999 case, an Indiana event production company suing a business partner argued that it should not be bound to a pre-dispute arbitration contract that called for using the Institute for Christian Conciliation. The company maintained that using Christian Conciliation would violate its agents and employees’ rights to the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment. But a district court in Colorado ruled that ordinary contract provisions applied and that the production company was bound by its contract. The company “voluntarily signed a contract containing a written arbitration agreement that clearly and expressly disclosed that arbitration would be submitted to Christian Conciliation. This manifests intent to be bound by Christian Conciliation’s decree and a knowing and voluntary waiver of their rights to pursue litigation in a secular district court,” the judge wrote. “Legally, we have every right to proceed in that situation,” says Ken Sande, the president of Peacemaker Ministries, as the dispute resolution provider at issue in the case is now called. “The more important issue is how do you win that party’s confidence? We’ve been able to do that very consistently.” According to Sande, Peacemaker Ministries gets high marks from even non-Christian attorneys and parties because it addresses issues that secular arbitrations often ignore. Most disputes are about more than just money, says Sande. They’re about how the two parties feel about each other, and involve issues like vengeance and betrayal. By invoking biblical principles of forgiveness and confession, Peacemaker Ministries can forge true reconciliation, says Sande. “Quite often it comes out that people will say, ‘The reason I did it is because I was mad at you,’” he says. “When you do confess those things you’re getting to the core of a problem.”

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