Posted by: aboutalbion | August 13, 2012

The law meets religion (1)

I am posting on a couple of UK legal cases involving religion that I have noted in the past few days.

In the first case, two groups of Sikhs could not resolve a dispute over the governance of some gurdwaras in the UK.  The trust deeds of the gurdwaras vested authority to appoint officers for the gurdwaras in the spiritual successor of the “First Holy Saint”.

At issue in this case was the identity of a person living in the Punjab region of the Indian sub-continent.  Was he, or was he not, the “Third Holy Saint” by spiritual succession, and so able to dismiss and appoint gurdwara officers.  The two UK groups of Sikhs could not agree.

What the two UK groups could agree on was that the contested claim about the identity of the spiritual successor necessarily depended on matters of faith, doctrine, and practice, over which the two groups held differing opinions.

In the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Mummery gave judgment, and his two colleagues concurred.   He affirmed the principle that “questions about the place of religion in our public life are far from unimportant”.  However, he decided that this (appeal) case lay outside the authority and competence of the courts to decide between the two parties.

He stated: “In my judgment, the authorities on the role of the courts in litigation about religious affairs establish, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that the courts abstain from adjudicating on the truth, merits or sincerity of differences in religious doctrine or belief and on the correctness or accuracy of religious practice, custom or tradition.”

So this case illustrates what I think of as the current state of the law.  The courts do not become involved in assessing the truth or falsehood of religious claims.  So I was interested to read the second case.  (To be continued …)

[Khaira v. Shergill [2012] EWCA Civ 893]


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