IN A landmark decision, the Supreme Court last month overruled
previous Court of Appeal authority in regard to the justiciability
of religious issues. The courts do not generally adjudicate on the
truth of religious beliefs, nor the validity of particular rites.
The Supreme Court, however, has decided that, when the courts are
asked to enforce private rights and obligations that depend on
religious issues, they will determine religious issues that are
capable of objective assessment.
The proceedings that came before the Supreme Court in February
2014 began in 2008, and originated in a dispute between two groups
of Sikhs about the trusteeship and governance of two gurdwaras
(Sikh temples), one in Birmingham and the other in High
In April 1987, 14 men, all Sikhs living in or near Birmingham,
attended a meeting at which they decided to establish a gurdwara
under the guardianship of the holder of the office of the First
Holy Saint, the religious head of the abode of saints at Nirmal
Kutia, in Johal, India.
In September 1987, the First Holy Saint approved a property in
Oldbury, Birmingham, and soon afterwards it was bought with
donations from devotees, and with loans. The property was vested in
four trustees, and in 1991 they executed a deed that, among other
provisions, conferred on the First Holy Saint "or his successor"
the power to remove and appoint trustees. The High Wycombe gurdwara
was acquired in September 1993, also with funds from donations and
The First Holy Saint died in November 2001, and was replaced by
the Second Holy Saint, who died in March 2002. In July 2003, Sant
Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj ("Sant Jeet Singh") was recognised as
the Third Holy Saint by the management committees of the
After a dispute about the trusteeships of the gurdwaras, the
claimants, Daljit Singh Shergill and several others, began court
proceedings, seeking declarations that Sant Jeet Singh had, in
exercise of the power conferred by the 1991 deed, validly removed
the defendants, Mohinder Singh Khaira and several others, from
their positions as trustees and officers of the two gurdwaras, and
replaced them with the claimants, Daljit Singh Shergill and
The key issue in the case was whether Sant Jeet Singh was, as
the claimants asserted, the "Third Holy Saint" and the current
"successor", through the Second Holy Saint, to the First Holy
Saint, who had founded the gurdwaras.
The defendants asked the court to strike out the claim on the
grounds that it unavoidably turned on matters of religious faith,
doctrine, and practice, on which the parties held differing beliefs
and allegiances; and that those were matters on which a secular
court could not adjudicate. The Court of Appeal, relying on
previous authority, struck out the claim. The claimants
successfully appealed to the Supreme Court.
Five Justices of the Supreme Court, including the President,
Lord Neuberger, heard the appeal, and unanimously ruled that the
secular courts had jurisdiction to determine disputes over the
possession of property held on trusts by religious organisations
for religious purposes.
The court could address questions of religious belief and
practice where its jurisdiction was invoked either to enforce the
contractual rights of members of a community against other members,
or its governing body, or to ensure that property held on trust was
used for the purposes of the trust.
The law treated unincorporated religious communities as
voluntary associations, the Supreme Court said, and viewed the
constitution of a voluntary association as a civil contract, as it
did the contract of a secular body. The contract by which members
agreed to be bound when joining an association set out the rights
and duties of members, and of the governing organs.
The courts would not adjudicate on the decisions of an
association's governing body unless there was a question of
infringement of a civil right or interest, such as the loss of a
remunerated office. But disputes about doctrine or liturgy were
non-justiciable if they did not, as a consequence, involve civil
rights or interests, or reviewable questions of public law.
The governing bodies of a religious voluntary association
obtained their power over its members by contract, and they must
act within the powers conferred by the association's contractual
constitution, the Supreme Court declared.
Where people set up a trust to govern the purposes for which
property was to be acquired and held, they were performing a
juridical act which created interests that the civil law would
protect. In a series of cases in which, as a result of a schism,
parties disputed who had the beneficial interest in property which
was held in trust for a religious community, the rule was
established that the civil courts would ascertain the essential
tenets of a faith, in order to identify who was entitled to the
The immigrations of the 20th century had diversified the
religious landscape of the UK, and the principles established in
church cases applied also to other religions.
Consequently, the present case will have to go to trial unless
the parties can resolve their differences. The court will then have
to adjudicate on matters of religious doctrine and practice, in
order to determine who are the trustees entitled to administer the
trusts, and whether Sant Jeet Singh had power to appoint and
That might depend on questions such as: what are the fundamental
tenets of the First Holy Saint and the Nirmal sect?; what is the
nature of the institution at Nirmal Kutia in India?; what steps or
formalities are needed for a person to become the successor of the
First Holy Saint?; and do the teachings and personal qualities of
Sant Jeet Singh comply with the fundamental religious aims and
purposes of the trust?
The decision, as a judicial precedent, could have wide-ranging
ramifications. It contradicts a line of recent cases at first
instance, in which the courts have expressed a general prohibition
against any legal investigation of religious doctrine and practice,
as opposed to a prohibition against adjudicating on the truth or
validity of such doctrines.
This is capable of affecting disputes relating to employment,
defamation, and other branches of the law.