Court Finds “Public Interest” In Allegations of Impropriety Against Religious Organization

By Ryan M. Prendergast

Feb 2024 Charity & NFP Law Update
Published on February 29, 2024



Disputes between members and leadership of religious organizations can sometimes turn quite heated, and may lead to members making public statements which are highly critical of the organization. Religious organizations looking to protect their reputation may consider suing for defamation. This is what happened in the case of Sri Ayyappa Samajam of Ontario v. Nathakumar, decided on January 29, 2024.

The Defendant (“Mr. Nathakumar”) was a congregant of the plaintiff Hindu temple (the “Temple”). The Temple was diverse in that it had congregants with national origins from Sri Lanka, India, and other countries. The dispute centered around a disagreement between members relating to the Sri Lankan civil war. This disagreement escalated when Mr. Nathakumar aired his concerns on Facebook, leading to protests outside the temple and allegations of financial impropriety against the Temple. Consequently, the Temple sued for defamation, primarily focusing on allegations of financial misconduct while also alleging defamation related to the defendant’s comments on the temple’s cultural direction, which were critical of its actions relating to the political dispute.

The court heard the defendant’s motion under s. 137.1 of the Courts of Justice Act to dismiss the plaintiff’s action on the grounds that it was a strategic lawsuit against public participation (“SLAPP”). As a part of this analysis, the court considered whether the statements made by Mr. Nathakumar were of public interest.

The Temple was not able to successfully argue that there was no public interest in Mr. Nathakumar’s statements. The comments made about the Temple’s financial dealings were of interest to the community because of the seriousness of the allegations: money laundering, membership irregularities, human rights violations in membership, and fraud. The cultural comments were of public interest because they had the potential to raise concern among membership regarding the Temple’s relationship to its Tamil members and their social/political concerns. Therefore, there was satisfactory public interest in all of Mr. Nathakumar’s statements. The court went on to say that “[s]uch expression touches on the core values of truth-seeking, participation in institutional decision-making and accountability.”

Sri Ayyappa Samajam serves as a reminder that statements regarding religious organizations made among members will not always be seen as matters of private affairs. In the interest of liberal principles, such as freedom of information, public participation of civil life and democracy, the court will often treat public criticism of a religious organization as a matter of public interest. This may limit the ability of these organizations to use civil litigation to protect their interests.


Read the February 2024 Charity & NFP Law Update