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Court dismisses suit seeking creation of Christian courts

By
Olisa Agbakoba

Ramon Oladimeji

A Federal High Court in Lagos has dismissed a suit filed by Mr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) against the Attorney General of the Federation and the National Assembly over non-creation of special court to preside over Christian affairs, including marriage solemnisation and divorce.

Agbakoba had argued that since there were Sharia Courts for Muslims and Customary Courts for those who practice the African Traditional Religion in Nigeria, the respondents had violated his right to freedom from discrimination by not creating Christian Courts to preside over Christian affairs.

He had challenged the provisions of sections 21-26 and 33(2)(a)(b) of the Marriage Act and Section 15(1)(2) of the Matrimonial Causes Act, which implied that “marriages celebrated by Catholics and other Christians without resort to the Marriage Registry and the Registrar’s certification is void in the face of the law.”

He had also challenged the situation whereby Christian marital disputes were adjudicated upon at the high courts “by persons with little or no knowledge of the Christian religion”, while Muslims and ATR adherents had the benefit of taking their disputes before the Islamic and Customary courts manned by Islamic scholars and people knowledgeable in customary laws respectively.

The former President of the Nigerian Bar Association had sought a declaration that sections 21-26 and 33(2)(a)(b) of the Marriage Act as well as Section 15(1)(2) of the Matrimonial Causes Act interfered with his right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

He urged the court to nullify sections 21-26 and 33(2)(a)(b) of the Marriage Act and Section 65(1)(2) of the Matrimonial Causes Act for being inconsistent with sections 38(1) and 42(1)(a) of the 1999 Constitution.

But in a judgment delivered on October 5, 2015, Justice C.J. Aneke said Agbakoba failed to show how the non-provision of courts in his religion had subjected him to any disability or discrimination and therefore dismissed the suit.

The judge said Agbakoba failed to show how he would benefit from the reliefs that he was seeking since he was already married and did not depose to any affidavit that he was contemplating a divorce.

He rejected Agbakoba’s argument that the right to marry in accordance with Christian belief is part and parcel of his (Agbakoba’s) constitutional right to freedom of religion.

The judge said, as opposed to Agbakoba’s argument, the word ‘marriage’ did not appear at all in Section 38 of the 1999 Constitution, neither did the section stipulate the procedure for solemnising a marriage or dissolving it.

“The court is therefore of the opinion that the right to freedom of religion does not include the right to a particular marriage or a particular procedure for dissolution of marriage.

“This court is also of the opinion that the applicant has not established his locus standi and his cause of action in bringing this suit. The applicant is already married and did not depose that he is contemplating divorce. Moreover, he has not proved how the reliefs, if granted, would confer a benefit on him,” Justice Aneke held.

He added, “The applicant failed to show how non-provision of courts in his religion has subjected him to any disability or discrimination…All the reliefs sought by the applicants are hereby refused.

“This suit is one for the interpretation of sections 38 and 42 of the Constitution, I make no order as to cost,” Aneke held.

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