Can a civil case proceed in federal court over who deserves to sit on the board of a religious nonprofit organization?
That was the question before a federal appeals court panel in a case in Oregon.
The widow of Yogi Bhajan, a spiritual teacher and entrepreneur who introduced Kundalini Yoga in the United States, alleged in U.S. District Court in Portland that her husband’s advisers improperly excluded her and their children from the management boards of two nonprofit organizations her husband started.
The organizations are associated with the Sikh Dharma religious community: Siri Singh Sahib Corp. and Unto Infinity LLC, both formed in Oregon.
The widow, Bibiji Inderjit Kaur Puri of Los Angeles, accused the advisers of converting millions of dollars in assets from the organizations for personal benefit.
Among the corporations represented under Unto Infinity LLC was Golden Temple of Oregon, which built the Peace Cereal and Yogi Tea brands and was long a cornerstone of Eugene’s natural foods industry.
The defendants in the case argued that a civil court couldn’t decide the dispute because the requested relief would infringe on the “autonomy constitutionally guaranteed to religious organizations.”
A U.S. District judge sided with the managers and dismissed the case in October 2013. The widow and her children appealed.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that the board positions at stake aren’t of a ministerial or religious nature and sent the case back to the lower court.
“This case appears to concern board members who, in that capacity, are neither employed by a church nor employed to minister to the faithful,” the ruling said.
The appellate court ruling revives the case, confirmed California-based lawyer Surjit P. Soni on Monday. Soni had argued the appeal on behalf of the plaintiff.
Yogi Harbhajan Singh Khalsa, also known as Yogi Bhajan, was a spiritual leader and entrepreneur who spread Sikhism and Kundalini Yoga in the U.S. beginning in the 1960s. In 1971, he was designated the Siri Singh Sahib, the Sikh leader for the Western Hemisphere. Yogi Bhajan founded or inspired the creation of numerous for-profit and nonprofit entities, including Siri Singh Sahib Corp. and Unto Infinity LLC.
He died in 2004. His widow, known as “Bibiji,” and their three children allege that the general counsel of Unto Infinity and Siri Singh Sahib conspired to exclude them from participating in managing the organizations. They want to be on both companies’ boards and are seeking compensation.