The Madras High Court on Thursday emphasized that even religious rights cannot be claimed to be absolute and that the moment the exercise of such a right affects the rights of others, it must be subjected to reasonable restrictions (T Wilson v. The District Collector and ors).
Justice N Anand Venkatesh made the observation while dismissing a 2016 petition urging for the Court's intervention to allow the conduct of certain Christian prayer services, which the petitioner claimed was private in nature. Referring to a number of judgments, the Court observed as follows:
"... the judgements referred supra make it very clear that even a religious right cannot be claimed to be absolute. The moment the exercise of such a right affects the rights of others, it must be subjected to reasonable restriction. The rights enjoyed by the citizens, including the fundamental rights, must co-exist in harmony."
In the present case, however, the Judge found that the petitioner's right of worship was directly impacting his neighbors' rights, given the public nature of his prayer meetings. A District Collector's report on this issue also indicated as much.
"Once the prayer meeting assumes such larger proportions resulting in public worship, attended by huge crowds, the very nature of the building changes, and it has to be construed as a prayer hall entertaining public worship. Consequently, the same would require obtaining necessary permission under the relevant rules," the Court said.
The petitioner had moved the court alleging that a false complaint had been made against him for the conduct of private prayer meetings by persons with communal feelings.
On further inquiry, however, the Court found that these prayer meetings were not private. Rather it was found that the petitioner was conducting public, pentecostal prayer services under the "Word of God Ministries Trust".
The prayer services initially started for a few days and later on began to be conducted on all days with the use of mike and speaker, with prayers being held from 9 am to 12 pm, the Court was told. The inquiry also found that most of the attendees were from other areas.
"... the petitioner, in the guise of conducting prayer meetings, is actually having a full-fledged prayer hall intended for religious purposes where huge congregations take place," the Court remarked.
Chiding the petitioner for claiming otherwise, Justice Venkatesh added,
"The fulcrum of any religious faith is “the truth”, and no religion tolerates any act which takes a person away from the truth. In the present case, the petitioner who claims himself to be a devout Christian has travelled far away from the truth."
For such public worship, the Court pointed out that the petitioner ought to have obtained appropriate prior permission from the District Collector under Rule 4 (3) of the Tamil Nadu Panchayats Building Rules, 1997.
The Judge was also unconvinced by the petitioner's assertions regarding the significance of group prayers in Christianity. To comment on this aspect, the Judge perused Bible verses.
On the one hand, the Bible encouraged group prayers and it was treated as an integral part of the religion, the Judge remarked. However, the Court marked out certain verses which indicated that prayers were meant to be personal and not "thrown out on stage for public display."
"It can be evidently understood that the Bible does not profess a prayer to be done or conducted in a manner that would warrant gathering of people and usage of amplifiers of any sort in the process, the latter owing to the period during which the text was written. It is therefore, clear from the very text that any sort of prayer contemplated by the religion is directed only towards the father, and it is a very personal and profound connect between the father and the one who is praying. Infact, prayer, across religions and beliefs is considered to be a profound and private bond between the person praying and the divine. It can certainly not be thrown out on stage for public display, and one done that way cannot be construed as prayer in its purest forms," read the order.
As such this contention was also not accepted. The Court proceeded to note that the petitioner has since come up with an undertaking that his building will not be used as a prayer hall for public worship. This only shows that it was put to such use in the past, the Judge observed.
Given his past conduct, the Court added that it is not in a position to repose any faith in the petitioner's statement that the building would hereafter be used only for conducting prayer meetings.
With these observations, the petition was dismissed, with the Court making it clear,
".... the petitioner has to necessarily conduct such prayer meetings in future only after obtaining necessary permission/approval under the relevant rules from the appropriate authority."
Advocate J Maria Roseline appeared for the petitioner, whereas Additional Advocate General Sricharan Rangarajan, assisted by Special Government Pleader Narayanakumar appeared for the respondent authorities.