Orissa High Court: A Division Bench of Mohammad Rafiq, CJ and Dr B. R. Sarangi, J. disposed of two petitions which challenged the closure of religious places by the State Government in light of Covid-19. While not issuing any general direction, the Court stated that reopening places of worship are a matter for the State Government to decide.
Two writ petitions had been filed by way of Public Interest Litigations, which raised the issue of the right of people to access places of worship being hindered by an order of the Odisha Government which directed the closure of places of worship even outside containment zones till 31-07 2020. The petitioners sought the reopening of all temples in Odisha for darshan and puja for the public, subject to necessary measures such as social distancing and wearing masks.
The petitioners relied on an order by the Ministry of Home Affairs which allowed the reopening of temples from 8-06-2020 onwards. Heavy emphasis was laid on the Supreme Court’s order in Nishikant Dubey v. UOI – SLA(C) No. 8716 of 2020 dated 31-07-2020 to buttress the submission that there cannot be a complete closure of religious places. The Advocate General, Ashok Kumar Parija, however, contended that according to a press note released by the Central Government, the State Government may prohibit or restrict such activities as deemed necessary. Moreover, he stated that the decision to close religious places was taken after an assessment of Covid-19 cases, which had revealed a spike in the number of cases in different parts of Odisha in the past few weeks.
The Court held that allowing entry of people into religious places is “matter for the State government to decide, on the basis of assessment of the day to day situation prevalent from place to place.” However, the Court did not deem it appropriate to pass a general order governing the entry of people into various religious places in the state. Instead, it directed the State Government to examine the grievance of the petitioners, keeping in mind the Supreme Court order mentioned above, and make a decision it deemed appropriate about reopening different places of worship in Odisha, depending on the situation prevalent, from time to time and place to place. [Trilochan Rath v. Government of India, WP (C) No. 17898 of 2020, decided on 10-08-2020]