This article is written by Kushang, a student from Himachal Pradesh National Law University (HPNLU). This article talks about the PIL filed against the opening of a place of worship amidst COVID-19. The article also discusses the SOPs for such places and whether the opening of places of worship is needed in adverse situations like the COVID-19.
Would you prefer to go to religious places during times of the COVID-19 pandemic? A question which may cause a dilemma in the minds of many people. The dilemma is to decide on the safety of their lives or to fulfil their devotion to the god. People may differ in these aspects. Some may consider going to such places of worship while others may give priority to their safety in the time of the pandemic. It is a subjective choice. The pandemic has created issues in all spheres of our lives. Religion and its practices have also been affected. Due to lockdown and social distancing measures, the places of worship were closed. No one could go to these places and offer their devotion to the god. However, major controversy sparked when the government announced the re-opening of such places in the first phase of ‘Unlock’ of the country. States like West Bengal allowed the opening before the Unlock guidelines. This step of the government was criticized. A PIL was filed by an advocate against this action of the government which has been discussed in the article.
A PIL was filed in the Calcutta High court against the decision of the state to allow the opening of places of worship in West Bengal. The case Priyanka Tibrewal v. Union of India and Ors. was filed by Advocate Priyanka Tibrewal. The petition states that the opening of the places of worship would increase the number of cases related to coronavirus. The petition also states that the opening of such places of worship doesn’t amount to essential activities. Only essential activities were allowed to take place in the country during the lockdown.
The West Bengal government issued an order to allow the opening of worship places in the state from June 1. The state was facing a huge risk of Covid-19 infections due to the return of labourers in the state. The cases of the virus were on the rise and people didn’t have enough resources to counter the threat. The petition mentioned the condition in which the migrant labourers were living and the quarantine facilities which were being provided to them. It described carelessness on the part of the authorities. The petition also mentions the reopening of schools for children below the age of 12. The petition justified the act of closing of religious places on the grounds of public order, morality, and health as mentioned in Article 25 of the Constitution of India. There were various grounds which were mentioned in the petition. They have been mentioned below.
The grounds for the petition
- The Covid-19 pandemic had led to lockdown in the whole country. It was done to ensure social distancing between people. Under such conditions, only essential things were allowed. Thus, in such situations, non-essential activities like opening a place of worship should be discouraged.
- The notification of the Ministry of Home Affairs stated that all activities have to open up in a phased manner. The notice also mentions that places of worship would reopen in phase 1 of the unlock. The petition states that it should not be allowed as the opening of places of worship is non-essential activity.
- The petition states that it is important to practice social distancing at the time of the pandemic. Allowing the opening of places of worship would defy this practice as such places may not follow social distancing.
- The petition states that the decision of opening such places shall be taken after consultation from the police authorities.
- The petition mentions that only a certain no. of people would be allowed in the place of worship which would lead to a huge crowd outside such premises. The crowd would mean more risk of spreading of the coronavirus among people.
- The petition also mentions that the facilities provided by the state government are not up to the mark.
- The authorities have been highly negligent in times of pandemic. The country may face more deaths due to carelessness on the part of authorities.
The following remedies were pleaded by the petitioner-
- A writ of Mandamus by the court directing the respondents to immediately take steps for revocation of the guideline ordering opening up places of worship by the state and take measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
- A writ of Mandamus by the court directing the respondents to give out the necessary direction to all police stations in the state to prevent people from gathering inside and outside places of worship.
- A writ of Mandamus to issue directions to refrain from opening educational institutions for children up to 12 years from physical functioning until it is certified safe for children by the health authorities. Till then, online classes should be held.
- A writ of Mandamus to issue directions to the respondent to give out further necessary directions to all police and relevant district administration officials to ensure safe and sanitary living conditions for migrant workers who are sent to quarantine centres to ensure minimum living standards for them.
- A writ of certiorari directing the respondents for framing specific guidelines directing the opening of places of worship.
SOP issued for places of worship
The government allowed the opening of places of worship in the country in the first phase of lockdown. The order allowed the opening of such places from June 8. Many states decided to agree with the order while other states did not open these places of worship. The Ministry of Home Affairs issued standard operating procedures (SOP) for the opening of places of worship. Key measures mentioned in the SOP were-
- All places of worship in the containment zones were ordered to remain closed. Only those places that are outside the containment zones were allowed to open.
- The generic preventive measures need to be taken by the authorities of such places. These measures include maintaining a minimum distance of 6 feet in public places, use of face masks compulsorily, frequent washing of hands with soaps, prevent spitting, and the use of Aarogya Setu app.
- The religious places need to have mandatory sanitiser dispensers and thermal screening provisions at the entrance of such places.
- Only asymptomatic individuals are allowed in places of worship.
- Face masks are compulsory for visitors.
- Staggering of visitors to be done, if possible.
- Proper crowd management should be done outside the premises following the social distancing norms.
- Such places should have specific markings with sufficient distance to manage the queue and ensure social distancing at all times.
- If possible, separate entry and exits should be organized by the authorities.
- People should wash their hands and feet before entering the premises.
- Touching of holy books/idols/statues should not be allowed.
- Common prayer mats should be avoided and devotees should bring their own prayer mat or piece of cloth.
- No physical offering like Prasad/ distributions or a sprinkling of holy water, etc to be allowed inside the religious places.
- Proper sanitization within the premises shall be maintained.
- Frequent cleaning and disinfection to be maintained by the management of the religious place.
- In case of a suspect or confirmed case on the premises, the authorities should place the person in an isolated room. A mask should be provided. The nearest medical facility should be contacted. The disinfection of premises should be undertaken if the person is found positive.
Development in the country
After the government announced the opening of places of worship from June 8 as part of ‘Unlock phase 1’, many states started allowing the opening of such places with the following standard operating procedure. Whereas there were states where even after the order of the central government these places of worship was not opened. There were instances where people from clergy did not want to open such places. For example, all churches under the Niranam and Kollam dioceses of the church were closed till June 30. The churches under other major denominations in Kerala had also decided not to open the churches.
Places like Karnataka also shifted the opening of various temples like ISKCON in the state. In Assam, one of its biggest and oldest temples, Kamakhya did not open the temples till June 30. Many states like Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu have reopened places of worship for the devotees. However, there were states like Maharashtra and Odisha which did not allow the opening of the places of worship. Maharashtra government stated the high chances and cases of coronavirus in the state as the reason to not allow the opening of religious places. The Odisha government also stated the same grounds for not opening the places of worship.
Even after more than 3 months of the order of reopening of places of worship, there are states which have not allowed reopening of religious places. Recently, A PIL was filed by Ahmedabad-based “Gitarth Ganga Trust” seeking opening of the places of worship in all the states. The trust is a religious research institute. The petition raised an interesting question that upto what extent the states may set limits on the number of worshippers when no such limits are imposed on activities like ‘manufacturing, retail merchandising or liquor stores’. The bench headed by Justice S A Bobde has issued notice to the centre and states seeking its reply on plea for the opening of places of worship.
Should it be allowed
The main question which needs to be analysed is whether the reopening of places of worship is justified? There can be positive as well as negative sides to this aspect. Many countries and states have allowed the reopening of such places. In some areas, the opening has not led to any bad consequences, however, there are instances where it has led to a huge spread of the virus among people. The most popular instance of such an incident is the opening of the Balaji temple in Andhra Pradesh. The Tirupati temple recorded more than seven hundred COVID positive cases among its staff since its opening in June. This is the threat related to the opening of such places. If proper measures are not taken by the concerned authorities then even a small mistake can lead to a big issue. Places of worship are generally crowded and people rarely follow any distancing rules by themselves. It is the responsibility of the authorities to ensure that all such measures are followed by the devotees. Opening of such places can lead to mass transmission.
For a country like India that is soon going to replace the U.S. as the worst affected country by COVID-19, taking such steps can have drastic effects. The main criteria to decide on such an issue should be the urgency of the situation. The authorities need to realise the need of the hour. If the authorities related to the religious places are capable enough to take all measures, then reopening of places of worship would not be an issue. Thus, it has to be identified if authorities are capable enough to take all measures before allowing the opening of such places.
Many places of worship have been opened amidst the coronavirus in the country so far. The Tirupati temple incident has raised concerns over this decision of the government. In a situation when the country is regularly hitting around a thousand cases of the virus, the opening of the religious places should not be a priority for the government. The people and devotees should understand that health and safety are the most important thing in such a scenario. No one is stopping the devotees to pray to their gods. It is just that a situation has arisen where it may not be feasible to allow the prayers or offerings of the devotees in the places of worship. Issues related to religion can be very sensitive but people need to realise that it is for their benefit that such restrictions have been imposed. Comparing the opening of such places with the opening of other economic activities is not justified and reasonable.
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