Permission to conduct prayers rejected despite court ruling

A district collector has refused to allow prayer meetings of a Pentecostal congregation in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu despite the Madras High Court bench in Madurai ruling last week that people practicing any particular religion do not need to seek permission from authorities after a pastor appealed to the bench.

Pastor S Suresh Rajan of the Assembly of God (a Pentecostal denomination) at Colachel in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu had appealed to the Madurai bench of Madras High court when his congregation was not allowed from holding prayer meetings in the newly constructed hall in North Kundal village , two kilometres away from the town.

Justice S Manikumar who passed the ruling disposing of a writ petition filed by Pastor Suresh Rajan to forbear the police and the district administration from initiating any action aimed at preventing him from conducting prayer meetings in his house. The judge, however, clarified that if such prayers led to public nuisance such as noise pollution, then it would always be open to the authorities to take necessary action under the provisions of the relevant statutes such as the Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules, 2000.

However, the district collector refused to change his stance.

Pastor Rajan used to conduct weekly prayer meetings at a rented thatch-roofed hall in the main Kanyakumari market area since 2006, and as the congregation grew he bought a plot of land two kilometres away in North Kundal village and built a community hall there. When he tried to shift the prayer meetings there, he was not allowed by the district collector, which forced him to appeal to the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court.

Earlier, recording the petitioner's submission that the police and revenue officials were interfering with the prayers conducted in his house following complaints by neighbours, the judge said that frivolous complaints to restrict the freedom to practice and profess any religion should not be entertained.

As long as the petitioner or the members of his family and others did not indulge in any activity forbidden under law or their actions were not contrary to public order, morality and health or such other restrictions, there could not be any interference with his right to religion, he added.

However, SP Ashokan, joint secretary of the district Hindu Munnani, a religious and cultural organisation formed in the early 1980s, was quoted by online portal Rediff as saying: "The court never gives permission against the collector's orders, it only gives a direction to reconsider. If the collector reconsiders and comes to the same conclusion, it's valid in law."

Unlike other districts of Tamil Nadu which largely ignore the rule, in Kanyakumari district permission from the district collector to start a prayer hall or church is mandatory.
Pastor Suresh Rajan informed that there are 200 applications for churches pending in Kanyakumari district.

"We will continue our work. We will appeal to the home secretary of Tamil Nadu against the collector's orders," he said.

Though Christians make up about six per cent of the population in the state, they constitute 44 percent in the district of Kanyakumari, nevertheless getting permission to start prayer halls or meetings seem difficult as they need to get permission from the district collector.