No religion in court please

31 January 2011 by

Shergill v Purewal & Anor [2010] EWHC 3610 (QB) (15 December 2010) – Read judgment

In the commotion surrounding the Christian hotel gay discrimination case, it is easy to forget that there is a long-standing principle that English courts will not decide matters of religious doctrine. This principle has been in play in a run of recent cases involving an Indian holy man and libel claims against journalists.
The most recent case was brought by Dajid Singh Shergill, a UK-based Sikh activist suing the Panjab Times in relation to 3 articles published in the summer 2008, relating to His Holiness Sant Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj (Jeet Singh), an Indian based preacher. The articles claimed, amongst other things, that Jeet Singh had “abandoned Sikh Principles“, that he and his supporters were a “sham“, that Shergill had “sought to instigate serious riots and create an atmosphere of terror” by proclaiming that Baba Jeet Singh had won a court case in India and was seeking to misappropriate local Sikh temples.

The defendants asked the court to stay the action on the basis that the claims related to points of religious principle, and as such could not properly be decided in a court. It is a defence to a libel action if the claims complained of can be shown to be true (the justification defence). However, courts have been reluctant to rule on such issues if they are essentially points of religious doctrine rather than simple factual matters.

The principle was examined in a related recent case where Mr Justice Eady in the high court stayed a claim brought against Hardeep Singh, a journalist (not to be confused with Hardeep Singh Kohli),  by Jeet Singh himself, relating to an article Singh wrote in the UK-based Sikh Times in which he called Jeet Singh an “accused cult leader” and an “impostor“.

In that case, the judge relied on the principle explained by Mr Justice Munby in Sulaiman v Juffali [2002] 1 FLR 479, that

Religion … is not the business of government or of the secular courts. So the starting point of the law is an essentially agnostic view of religious beliefs and a tolerant indulgence to religious and cultural diversity. A secular judge must be wary of straying across the well-recognised divide between church and state. It is not for a judge to weigh one religion against another. All are entitled to equal respect, whether in times of peace or, as at present, amidst the clash of arms.

Since the central issues to the case could not “be divorced from questions of Sikh doctrine and practice“, the judge effectively threw it out by staying it indefinitely. The case is currently before the court of appeal, but only on very limited grounds, and not in relation to whether the allegations were about religious doctrine.

Sir Charles Gray made a similar ruling in Shergill’s case. The facts could not be separated from the questions of religious doctrine:

it is open to a defendant in a libel action to justify words of which the claimant complains in any meaning which those words are reasonably capable of bearing. In my judgment, it would not be possible to hive off or divorce the issue of the legitimacy or otherwise of the claims that Baba Jeet is the successor to the sainthood. To attempt to do so would be unjust to the defendants. It appears to me to be fundamental to their case on justification that the claims of Baba Jeet to be the true leader and owner of the Gurduwaras are unjustified. (para 34)

The claim was therefore stayed, which means that it has effectively been struck out, unless the claimant successfully appeals.

No religion please, sometimes

Two issues arise from this judgment. First, in the particular case, did Sir Charles Gray go too far in staying the entire claim? As the Inforrm blog points out, not all of the articles complained of were straightforwardly about religious doctrine:

although the background was religious, there were also allegations that the claimant was a party to “conspiracies to provoke violence”. It is arguable that the decision goes too far, and breaches the claimant’s right to access to court under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The second question arising is whether the courts are doing enough, or indeed too much, to exclude matters of religious doctrine. It seems right that courts, which are secular, should never make a ruling which privileges one religion over another. But the devil is in the detail. It is not always possible to say conclusively whether an issue is one of religious doctrine or not.

And whilst courts may seek not to mediate between religions, judges are regularly ruling that secular principles – for example non-discrimination – should trump some religious beliefs. A recent example is the Cornish hotel gay discrimination case, where the hotel’s Christian owners sought unsuccessfully to prevent two gay men from sharing a room. In another, a Christian charity was prevented from restricting its adoption service to heterosexuals. And in the important Jewish Free School case, the Supreme Court privileged anti-discrimination rules over Jewish religious doctrine.

So whilst the courts may seek to avoid ruling on religious doctrine, they are in fact regularly confronted with issues which are unavoidably linked to religious principle, usually when they come into conflict with human rights or discrimination law. This is fair enough if one accepts the principle of a secular state which allows religious institutions to  do what they like so long as they do not unreasonably impinge on the rights of others. But this begs the question as to what is “unreasonable”.

Some have said that in light of an increasing number of cases involving religion, the courts could make themselves more sensitive to religious issues, perhaps through “faith courts” where judges would be specially trained. But this idea would do more harm than good, as I have argued recently.

Whilst the question of religion in courts is difficult, it by no means new. It has often been central to the difficult balance maintained by liberal secular democracies over history. It will continue to be controversial, and the courts must be sensitive whilst also maintaining the standards of discrimination and human rights law, which, it should be remembered, also protects freedom of religious expression. It will not always be easy to say whether a point of religious doctrine is central to a case. But it a worthwhile aim to try to steer clear when possible.

Update, 28 February 2011 – Lord Justice Munby in the Administrative court has approved the policy of a local council which excluded a religious Christian couple from becoming foster parents. The council considered that their unfavourable views on homosexuality made them unsuitable for the role. The judgment makes very interesting reading: See Johns & Anor, R (on the application of) v Derby City Council & Anor [2011] EWHC 375 (Admin)- our post to follow.

Update, 2 March 2011 – The Hardeep Singh libel case has been thrown out of court, following Jeet Singh’s failure to pay “security for costs” of £250,000 into court. This is a mechanism by which parties to a court case can be protected against opponents who look unlikely to pay out costs should they lose. The order against Singh lapsed today, which means that the case has ended. Singh says he has payed out £90,000 which he will now have to recoup through the Indian courts.

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  1. John Dowdle says:

    With regard to the swimming pool example, arguably all local council tax payers contribute equally towards the costs of the provision of leisure facilities in the local government area in which they reside.
    Therefore, is it not equally arguable that all local residents should have equal access to the full range of leisure facilities at all times that they are open?
    The enforced gender separation demanded by religionists has been identified – rightly, in my opinion – by feminists as constituting another means of degrading women and their sexuality.
    The insistence on so-called “modesty” rules almost always applies to women and rarely – if ever to men. Why?
    It also spills over to enforced dress codes for women, usually with an implicit threat of violence for those who do not conform.
    We should all be on our guard for the “slippery slope” practices of religionists who seek to divide us one from another.
    Their beliefs should be challengable under equalities law.

  2. gsw says:

    I fear this is yet another non-issue being made much of by the religions.

    I am with Sam Harris on this one:

    If I were to go to court and claim that it is ok for me to refuse to send my children to school on Wednesday, or that they may not take part in certain lessons, or that I must wear certain clothing not corresponding to uniform and all this because I am a Sagittarius or a Libro, it would never even get as far as a court.

    As to all Taurus children being permitted to carry a ceremonial knife, while the Aquarians – being peaceful – are not, no one would take it seriously for a minute!

  3. Gilbert says:

    The UK law protects people based on sex, race, etc, but it appears that sexism is seen less of a human rights issue than say racism or hate of same-sex relationships. Swimming pools continue, practically unchallenged, to offer single sex sessions such that people can practice their faith in the swimming pool. Typically, non-religious men are the victim, but there are also men-only sessions, which are equally sexist towards non-religious women. Both types of sessions are discriminatory to mixed-gender couples or families who wish to swim at those times, but one gender must stay out.

    Article 9 of the EU Human Rights Treaty (signed by the UK) states that one shall be free to practice religion unless it interferes with the freedoms of others.

    As far as I know, nobody has ever brought this issue up in a court. I am curious to see how UK courts would handle that.

  4. S. Legree says:

    Lert them bring action in Asia, NOT HERE.
    We`ve had enough of the machinations of foreigners.

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