It’s a Business Spat, not Religious, Ninth Circuit Says

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — The Ninth Circuit agreed that the widow of Yogi Bhajan, head of the Sikh Dharma faith and the Yogi Tea Empire, can be on the Yogi Tea board of directors, as the underlying dispute involved business, not religion.

Bibiji Puri and her three children claimed that Yogi Bhajan wanted them to be four of the 15-member board of Onto Infinity and the Siri Singh Sahib Corporation, but the other board members shut them out.

U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mossman in Oregon dismissed, finding that Bibiji lacked standing to sue on behalf of Unto Infinity and Siri Singh Sahib Corp. because she was not a board member. He also found that the First Amendment prohibited him from installing the leaders of a religious organization.

Bibiji appealed to the Ninth Circuit, where her attorney, Surjit Soni, argued that it’s a business case, not a religious one.

“The fact that some of these people may be ministers does not make it a religious issue,” Soni told the appeals court.

The attorney for Unto Infinity and Siri Singh Sahib Corp., however, argued that the court risked getting into the religious territory forbidden by the Constitution if it did not affirm dismissal.

“What the court lacked was the power to essentially pick the winners and the losers in a battle for control over the religious hierarchy of the faith,” said Paul Southwick, with Davis Wright Tremaine,

On Friday, Ninth Circuit Judge Raymond Fisher, writing for the three-judge panel, partially vacated and reversed and remanded.

At issue are the defendants’ actions, not their beliefs, Fisher wrote. The defendants do not dispute whether Bibiji and her children meet the religious eligibility requirements for the board positions. So there is nothing in this dispute that would force the necessarily secular courts to wade into questions of religious faith.

“The claims could be resolved by application of neutral principles of law without encroaching on religious organizations’ right of autonomy in matters of religious doctrine and administration,” Fisher wrote.

Attorney Soni is based in Pasadena, Calif., Southwick’s office in Portland, Ore.