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During the hearing, however, it was pointed out that in Kerala, alcohol vending outlets remain shut amid the COVID-19 lockdown, even after the lockdown guidelines were relaxed in its third phase.
Interesting (virtual) courtroom exchanges were witnessed today during a brief Kerala High Court hearing on a plea to re-open Christian churches in Kerala with limited capacity amid the COVID-19 lockdown.
When the matter came up via videoconferencing this afternoon before the Bench of Justices Anu Sivaraman and MR Anitha, the Court observed that the matter need not be heard now.
Before the matter was adjourned, however, Advocate Philips Mathews made short submissions to press for the petitioner's prayer to allow Chrisitian devotees to physically participate in church services amid the lockdown, emphasising that physical participation was important in church services.
He submitted that even now lockdown guidelines allow 20 people to congregate for marriages and funerals, whereas only 5 people are allowed in churches at a time, which remain closed off to the public.
A Government counsel present for the Division Bench hearing, pointed out that it was not just churches that have been directed to be closed during the lockdown. He remarked that now there is a plea being made to re-open temples as well.
Mathews countered in a lighter vein that he is not against any religious institution being opened. "Let that (temples) also be opened (with limited capacity)", he said.
He added that it is not his case that there is any discrimination between religious institutions on the question of re-opening/closure amid the COVID-19 lockdown. Rather, Mathews pointed out that the discrimination appeared to be between secular and religious institutions.
"Lulu mall (the hypermarket within the mall) is also open!", he pointed out.
Referring to the alcohol sales being permitted in the country during this time, he added, "പ്രാർത്ഥിക്കാൻ പാടില്ല, കള്ളു കുടിക്കാം!", which roughly translates to "We cannot pray, (but) alcohol can be consumed!"
However, another counsel interjected to point out that in Kerala, liquor shops remain shut as of now, even after the lockdown restrictions were relaxed in its third phase.
The Kerala Government had initially issued a GO stating that alcohol may be sold amid the first lockdown on the basis of a government doctor's prescription slip stating that the person is suffering from withdrawal symptoms. On April 2, the Kerala High Court quashed this decision.
Since then the Government has not re-opened liquor vending outlets. However, it is now reportedly exploring mechanisms to handle virtual queues at outlets which may sell liquor.
As for the plea to re-open churches, the Court today declined to pass any orders today, and posted the matter to be taken up next week. An impleadment plea filed in the matter by one, Thankacchan, was also allowed.
When the plea had initially come up before a Bench of Justices Shaji P Chaly and MR Anitha on May 8, the Court had declined to grant immediate interim orders, orally observing that such prayers cannot be allowed contrary to Government advisories in public interest.
At the time, Justice Chaly had also orally remarked, "You will have to consider, above all things, the public interest. Anybody can pray, churches are functioning (virtually). The Court should be concerned about the larger public interest, regardless of religion or caste or anything."