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Court refuses to rule in case that turns on tenets of religious belief

by
03 August 2012

A COURT of law should not adjudicate on matters that unavoidably involved issues of doctrine and religious faith, the Court of Appeal unanimously ruled last week. It was striking out a claim in a dispute between two groups of Sikhs as to the meaning and effect of two English trust deeds, which conferred power on the "successor" of the First Holy Saint of the Nirmal Sikhs to appoint and remove trustees.

The court proceedings, which were begun in June 2008, originated from disputes about the trusteeship and governance of two gurdwaras (Sikh temples), one in Birmingham, and the other in High Wycombe.

The claimants, Daljit Singh Shergill, and several others, sought court declarations that the defendants, Mohinder Singh Khaira, and several others, had been removed from their positions as trustees and officers of the two gurdwaras and replaced by the claimants as lawfully appointed trustees and officers.

The significant question in the case was whether the ninth claimant, Sant Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj, was, as his fellow claimants asserted, the "Third Holy Saint", and whether he was successor through the Second Holy Saint to the First Holy Saint, who founded the gurdwaras in the 1980s.

The defendants asked the court to strike out the claim on the ground that it unavoidably turned on matters of religious faith, doctrine, and practice, on which the parties held differing beliefs and allegiances. A secular court could not adjudicate on the truth of disputed tenets of religious belief and faith, or on the correctness of religious practices, which were neither questions of law nor factual issues capable of proof in court by admissible evidence.

The claimants disagreed. They said that issues in the proceedings were justiciable (subject to trial by a court of law) in the English courts because they concerned the administration of valid charitable trusts for the advancement of religion, which were established under and governed by English law.

Lord Justice Mummery, the presiding judge, with whom Lord Justice Hooper and Lord Justice Pitchford agree, said that he agreed that "questions about the place of religion in our public life are far from unimportant".

Religion gave meaning and purpose to some lives, he said, while having no meaning or purpose for others. There would inevitably be disputes with a religious aspect which, however controversial and profound to those involved, could not exclude or limit the jurisdiction of the civil courts to determine civil rights. This was not a case of that sort, Lord Justice Mummery said.

Non-justiciability was "a salutary principle of judicial self-restraint", he said. Judges were not capable of understanding and deciding everything, and it was not their function to do so. They sat in courts of law, and there were matters on which a court was not competent to speak with authority. That was so where the questions were not matters of law at all, such as subjective inward matters incapable of proof, direct evidence, or inference.

The court was being asked to pronounce on matters of religious doctrine and practice relating to the validity of the disputed claims of the ninth claimant (who lived in the Punjab) to be the holy and spiritual leader of the Nirmal Sikhs and the successor to the First Holy Saint.

It would be necessary to investigate the doctrines and practices of Sikhism in order to determine the criteria relevant to that claim. The question of succession was essentially a matter of subjective belief and faith on which secular courts could not possibly reach a decision, Lord Justice Mummery said.

The court should put a halt to this now, he said. The court risked diminishing respect for its own authority - as happened, for example, to the 19th-century jurisdiction of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In a more religious age, it gave appellate decisions (often ignored) in its ecclesiastical jurisdiction on points of the interpretation of scripture, doctrine, sacraments, ritual, and vestments that arose in religious controversies in the Established Church.

The continuation of these proceedings would only inflict on the parties and their communities a further waste of time and money in the fruitless pursuit of a judicial determination that could not be made.

Voluntary procedures were also available through mediators, including specialists in religious disputes, and legal procedures might be available through the Charity Commission. But the litigation had no realistic future in the courts, the judges said.

 

 

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