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20 Jan 2017

SC no to church divorce

TT, New Delhi, Jan. 19: The Supreme Court today ruled that churches in India have no power to grant divorces, asserting that only district and high courts can annul a marriage of a Christian couple under the Indian Divorce Act, 1869.
A bench of Chief Justice J.S. Khehar and Justice D.Y. Chandrachud dismissed a plea by an 87-year-old Catholic advocate seeking legitimacy for Church-granted divorces, saying the petition is "devoid of merit".
The PIL had contended that when courts in India recognise dissolution of marriage - by pronouncing the word talaq three times - under Islamic law, they should do the same for Christians under the Canon Personal Law of Indian Catholics.
Additional solicitor-general Neeraj Kishan Kaul, appearing for the Union government, told the bench that the law on whether courts in India or churches had the power to grant divorce was clearly settled in a 1996 apex court ruling. That order, in the Molly Joseph Vs George Sebastian case, held that only courts had the authority to annul a marriage between Christian couples.
"Such an Ecclesiastical Tribunal cannot exercise a power parallel to the power of the district court or the high court, which have been vested in the district court and the high court by the provisions of the Divorce Act. Section 18 (of the act) excludes the jurisdiction and authority of any other tribunal or court, including the Ecclesiastical Tribunal (Church Court)," the apex court had said in the judgment.
Today, the bench cited the 1996 verdict in dismissing the PIL.
Clarence Pais, the advocate from Bangalore who filed the plea, had raised another key point by challenging the jurisdiction of criminal courts in India to prosecute Roman Catholics under Section 494 of the IPC for alleged bigamy. The maximum punishment under this section is imprisonment up to seven years and a fine.
The petition said the issue was being raised in public interest and urged the court to declare that the Canon Law was the personal law of Indian Christians and that divorce decrees granted by the Ecclesiastical Court were valid and binding on all courts in India.
Clarence said the question was important as it affected over one crore citizens who are Indian Christians/Catholics.

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