Kerala High Court
Kerala High Court
Litigation News

"Religious gatherings" prohibited in COVID-19 Guidelines not the same as permitted limited gatherings at "places of worship": Kerala HC

The Court made the observation while dismissing a plea challenging the Kerala Government’s Orders permitting up to 100 persons in places of worship amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lydia Suzanne Thomas

The Kerala High Court recently dismissed a petition moved by two lawyers, Advocates TK Jayakumar and BH Mansoor challenging the Kerala Government’s Orders permitting a maximum of hundred persons at a time in places of worship (TK Jayakumar and Anr. v. State of Kerala and Anr).

Jayakumar and Mansoor, through their counsel Advocate Dr KP Pradeep, assailed that the State’s Orders as violative of the Government of India’s ‘Unlock’ guidelines and Standard Operating procedures (SOPs) amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The petitioners vehemently argued that despite the bar on religious gatherings and congregations in the Government of India’s Order dated May 30, 2020, the State Government on June 5 and on June 24 allowed relaxations in religious and other places of worship.

Dismissing their arguments, a Division Bench of Chief Justice S Manikumar and Justice Shaji P Chaly held “places of worship” and “religious functions and gatherings” are distinct from each other.

Resultantly, reopening the places of worship was held permissible, while the religious functions and gatherings are still prohibited.

In so doing, the Court relied on the Government of India’s Orders, SOPs, and the Kerala Government’s Orders.

The Court noted that ‘reopening places of worship’ was on the agenda in Phase I of the first ‘Unlock Guidelines’ notified on May 30, 2020, though “religious gatherings” were forbidden.

Phase 1, Unlock 1, permitting the reopening of Religious Places/Places of Worship
Phase 1, Unlock 1, permitting the reopening of Religious Places/Places of Worship
Phase III, Unlock 1, prohibiting religious functions and "other large congregations"
Phase III, Unlock 1, prohibiting religious functions and "other large congregations"

Shortly after, SOPs for the conduct of prayers at places of worship was issued. Neither of these notifications specified limits on the number of persons inside the place of worship, the Court pointed out

Snapshot of SOP on Reopening Places of Worship
Snapshot of SOP on Reopening Places of Worship

Pursuant to the SOP, Kerala Government passed an Order that stipulated limits on the numbers of persons in these places of worship, limiting the number of persons to 15 persons per 100 square feet and in no case exceeding 100 persons at a time.

Later, the Government clarified that the number of persons would be 15 persons per square meter and that the limit on persons at a place of worship is for “each prayer/namaz/pooja in that place of worship and not for different phases of same prayer/namaz/pooja”. This was reiterated in its subsequent Order.

The Government of India's Order dated June 29, on the other hand, made no mention of places of worship and it only prohibited religious gatherings. The Court reasoned that this was because places of worship were already reopened in the First Phase of Unlock 1.

"... it would appear that there is no restriction, as to the maximum imposed at all, though directions are issued for maintaining social distancing and for other safety precautions … (for) places of worship additional restrictions are imposed in the State, thus imposing a maximum of 100 persons irrespective of the larger area of the religious building, and that too following all the impositions contained under the orders discussed."
Kerala High Court

The State Government had denied that large public gatherings were being held in the Kerala. The Court accepted this submission.

The Petitioners contentions, described by the Court as “harping” on the expression “large congregations”, were thus rejected. The Court added,

"We cannot be oblivious of the fact that Mass in a Church is conducted at a particular time, prayer in a Mosque is performed at a particular time and so also worship in a Temple. One will have to give a meaningful intent when the Central Government have issued guidelines for opening activities in religious places/places of worships for public, whether a person belongs to it is Hindu/Muslim/Christian or any other religion. Though contentions are made on bona fides of the petitioners, who are advocates, we are not inclined to delve into the same."

Therefore, the Bench ruled,

"Contentions that there is an absolute bar on religious assembly is not accepted."
Kerala High Court

Earlier on July 15, the same Division Bench of the Kerala High Court had passed an Order prohibiting public gatherings not expressly excluded by the National Disaster Management Authority till July 31, including protests and gatherings by political parties (John Numpeli Junior and Ors. V. State of Kerala and Ors.).

"We hasten to add that the political parties also shall rise to the occasion and restrain themselves from conducting any activities in violation of the orders issued by the National Disaster Management Authority ..."
the Court had said.

A similar plea was disposed of by a Chief Justice-led Bench of the Punjab and Haryana High Court on July 29. The plea had questioned the State government’s inaction over alleged violations of the Union Home Ministry guidelines and government orders. It was alleged that political meetings were being conducted, along with congregations (Simranjeet Singh v. State of Punjab).

Without expressing an opinion on merits, the Punjab and Haryana High Court had directed the State to examine complaints of supposed infractions and ascertain their veracity, according to law.

Read the Kerala HC orders here:

T.K. Jayakumar and Anr. v. State of Kerala and Anr. - Judgment dated July 30, 2020.pdf
John Numpeli Junior and Ors. v. State of Kerala and Ors. and allied Writ Petitions - Judgment dated July 15, 2020.pdf

Read the Punjab and Haryana HC order:

Simranjeet Singh v. State of Punjab - Order dated July 29.pdf
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