‘Violates Art 25’ – Kerala court on Knanaya Church expels members who marry outside the community

New Delhi: A district court in Kerala has ruled that endogamy is not “an essential religious practice” and that expelling members for marriage outside the community violates Article 25. The article guarantees Indian citizens the right to practice and profess their faith and religion.

Kottayam Additional District Judge Sanu S Panicker upheld a 2018 lower civil court ruling that overturned the expulsion of members of the Knanaya Catholic Community – a Kottayam-based Christian sect – from the church for marriage outside the community. The 2018 executive order was passed on a complaint filed by excluded members.

Judge Panicker held that endogamy “is not an essential religious practice to limit membership in the Church”. Endogamy means marriage within the community or group.

“I am of the opinion that the Church would not be justified in regulating membership in the Church on the basis of the custom of endogamy which prevails in the community,” he added in the judgment of 107 pages.

He referred to canon law, the set of ordinances and regulations governing Christianity, which does not prohibit mixed marriage to reinforce the judgment.

To reach this judgment, the Court of Appeal also considered the question of whether a civil court can hear cases related to the violation of fundamental rights.


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The genesis of judgment

The ruling dates back to a 2015 lawsuit filed in lower civil court by Knanaya Catholic Naveekarana Samithy, a Kottayam-based reform group, and other members of the community.

The lawsuit had requested a declaration that the sacrament of marriage with a Catholic from the outer Kottayam Diocese would not lose membership in the Kottayam Diocese.

He also sought an injunction to solemnize marriage in the Diocese of Kottayam and readmit those who have been expelled from membership due to the custom of endogamy.

In issuing its verdict in 2018, the lower civil court had ruled that endogamy violated the fundamental right of Knanaya Catholics to choose a life partner of their choice, which it said is an integral part of Article 21 which guarantees every citizen the right to liberty. .

Although Judge Panicker largely concurred with the lower civil court’s view, he did not find that the custom of endogamy was a violation of section 21. He said the practice had been prevalent for a ” reasonably very long period”, but the custom of marriage does not take away the right of individuals to marry on the basis of their choice.

The expulsion of church members cannot be justified as it violates the right to freedom of conscience and religious practice guaranteed by Article 25 of the Constitution, he added.


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Not prohibited by canon law

The court observed that the Knanaya Catholics known as “Southeists” are a section of St Thomas Christians in Kerala who have distinct religious practices, and the church was exclusively carved out for them. But the judgment did not uphold the church’s rule on endogamy criteria for membership saying that the primacy is canon law.

Canon law does not prohibit intermarriage, the court said, adding that the papal bull (a public decree issued by a Pope of the Catholic Church) does not authorize the Church to regulate membership by the endogamy, but by canon law.

The court also took into account the argument of the respondent that the child born to an unmarried Knanaya girl was also allowed to be baptized and to be part of the church to consider that endogamy is not not an essential religious practice.

The church does not have primacy over canon law, he said, and therefore neither the community nor the church has the right to regulate church membership for baptism on the basis of the custom of endogamy, circumventing canonical laws.

On the issue of forcible expulsion, the court stated that criteria for membership based on custom are still in effect, so “peaceful” removal is insignificant, and asked to readmit those expelled.


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Civil courts & violation of fundamental rights

The district court ruled that the cases involving the right to worship, the right to marry, the validity of the custom of endogamy and the right to church membership were civil in nature and had civil consequences, judging that “the civil court is competent to rule on the question of the violation of fundamental rights as common law”.

With reference to K.S. Puttaswamy casethe judgment further clarifies that if the infringer is a state, the action would be in the briefing courts and where the infringer is a non-state actor (in this case, the church), the action would be in the ordinary courts, such as the civil court of the subordinate magistracy.

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)


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