In an order granting supremacy to parliamentary laws over personal laws of religious groups, the Supreme Court Thursday ruled that divorce decrees passed by ecclesiastical tribunals under the canon law will have no validity and that Christian couples must abide by the statutory law to have their marriages legally annulled.
The court order, which dismissed a three-year-old PIL filed by Clarence Pais, an advocate and a former president of the Catholic Association of Dakshina Kannada in Karnataka, may also have a bearing on a clutch of petitions that have sought declaring triple talaq as unconstitutional and illegal.
Demanding legal recognition of the canon law, Pais had sought to draw a parallel with legal sanctity being granted to the oral triple talaq for Muslims.
But a bench led by Chief Justice of India J S Khehar dismissed the petition filed by Pais, and invoked a judgment holding that parliamentary laws shall override personal laws and that “statutory provisions shall prevail and override any personal law”.
Pais wanted the Supreme Court to put its stamp of approval on the decrees of divorce and other such decrees issued by an ecclesiastical court or tribunal. An ecclesiastical tribunal or a church court, set up under the canon law, is an institution for Catholics.
The bench, also comprising Justice D Y Chandrachud, however, said that the petition was “devoid of merit” and deserved to be dismissed in view of the 1996 judgment which had settled the law on the point of marriage and divorce among Christians. The court said that a divorce decree can be passed only by a district court or a high court, authorised under the Divorce Act.
Declining a plea by the petitioner’s advocate to adjourn the hearing of the matter, the bench said that the PIL lacked merit after what the apex court said in its 1996 ruling and would be dealt with right away.
“When legislature enacts a law even in respect of the personal law of a group of persons following a particular religion, then such statutory provisions shall prevail and override any personal law, usage or custom prevailing before coming into force of such Act,” the 1996 judgment had said while dealing with a similar issue on the ecclesiastical court.
The two-judge bench of the Supreme Court had declared that power to grant divorce “has been vested either in the district court or the high court” and “there is no scope for any other authority including ecclesiastical tribunal (Church Court) to exercise power in connection with matrimonial matters which are covered by the provisions of the Divorce Act.”
Citing this judgment, the bench rejected the plea to ratify decrees of dissolution of marriage granted by an ecclesiastical court and to grant immunity from criminal prosecution to Roman Catholics under Section 494 of the Indian Penal Code for the offence of bigamy.
With this order, the apex court also rejected an argument made by Pais’s lawyer and former Attorney General Soli Sorabjee that canon law decrees have to be made binding on courts of law since triple talaq has been accorded legal sanctity for granting divorce to Muslim couples.
The petition was opposed by the central government which maintained that since the power for dissolution of marriage has been vested in the court, there is no scope for any other authority, including an ecclesiastical tribunal, to exercise such power.
Additional Solicitor General Neeraj K Kaul submitted before the bench on Thursday that the issue was squarely covered by the 1996 judgment and no further indulgence should be shown to the petitioner. He pointed out that Parliament has enacted the Christian Marriage Act and Divorce Act to deal with matrimonial issues and no other forum could now be given parallel authority.
During a previous hearing of this petition, the apex court had said that India is a secular country today but it is not sure for how long it will stay that way. The court also stressed that religious decrees cannot override the written code of law. “India till now is a secular country. we don’t know for how long it will remain a secular country. We have to stamp out religion from civil laws. It is very necessary. There are already too many problems,” the court had observed.