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Secular courts will give rulings on religious issues

04 July 2014


Law and order: Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, leads a procession of the eleven Supreme Court Justices outside Westminster Abbey, last year

Law and order: Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, leads a procession of the eleven Supreme Court Justices outside Westminster Abb...

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 Wycombe.

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 loans.

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 gurdwaras.

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 others.

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 property.

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 dismiss trustees.

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.

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