Science and religion are seen as implacable foes but when an association of doctors uses the former as a tool to allegedly obliterate the latter, law steps in to deliver justice. For justice is an amorphous concept which is sought by those who seek to deny it to others under the guise of public order, morality and health which are the only curbs imposed on enjoying the right to freely practice, profess and propagate any religion within India.
Goa has a sizable Christian population which is a fast-dwindling minority community in this tiny state. On March 6, 2017, two students desecrated the sacred holy communion and recorded the act on their mobile. The horrific incident took place at our Lady of Snows Church in Rachol. When they were caught and going to be beaten up by the local Catholics who witnessed the incident, the parish priest, Fr Eremita Rebello, rescued the boys and asked them who they were. Their teachers did not turn up for four hours but rather than press charges under section 153 (A) of the IPC and other stringent sections of the penal law, the parish priest chose to forgive the two boys.
Ironically, the police sub inspector who was called to probe the incident was also a Catholic, a PSI by the name of Alvito Rodrigues. But to return to the national scene, a little-known association styling itself as the Qualified Medical Practitioners Association, represented by a 75-year-old Kottayam-based doctor named O.Baby, filed a writ petition in the Kerala high court seeking that the judges command all Christian churches in Kerala and Tamil Nadu to follow hygienic practices while distributing Holy Communion, which the doctors mistakenly termed as “food” within the meaning of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006.
These allegedly learned doctors (and dentists whom the association claimed to represent seemed to be unaware that the “food” which they referred to in their petition was not considered food for the body but spiritual sustenance for the soul, as per Christian theology based on the last supper in which Jesus Christ officiated.
These doctors alleged these Christian churches followed an unhealthy practice of administering holy communion (which consists of a consecrated wafer believed by Christians to be the body of Christ) as an enactment of Jesus Christ distributing bread and wine during the last supper before he was crucified over 2020 years ago.
According to these doctors, this practice posed a serious health hazard to the general public, and more to those who received the consecrated wafer. The doctors further erroneously alleged the priests served wine from a single chalice using the same spoon which they alleged posed a health hazard to those who received it and to others as well.
To quote these doctors verbatim, : “Pieces of bread are also served into the mouth of the communicant (sic) by the priests with their own hand. There is no cleaning of the spoon or the hand while serving each communicant, which gives rise to a very high possibility of saliva contamination and one of the major causes of spreading of many diseases, and some of them can even spread through saliva droplets in the air.”
“ The possibility of such infections spreading through direct saliva contamination of large mass of people is very high and it ought to be avoided by resorting to hygienic practices. That apart, it is submitted that many members of the petitioner Association had taken up the matter individually with different churches and some of the churches have made certain restrictions, while others have declined to make any changes in administering the holy communion.” The doctors went on to allege that “….various representations were submitted before the state government and its officers, including the authorities under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006. No action was initiated which necessitated the petitioner to approach this Court by filing this writ petition.”
These doctors (and perhaps dentists as well) seemed to be blissfully unaware that the state cannot interfere in religious practices which are not violative of the constitution or public order, morality or health. As the two judges of the Kerala high court pointed out in their erudite judgment which dismissed this misconceived petition, that the court could not interfere with the right of all Christian churches guaranteed by the Constitution under Article 26 to manage their own affairs as they pleased without interference from the state.
The judgment was pronounced by Justice Shaji P. Chaly, 17 th seniormost judge in the Kerala high court. It was heard by a division bench comprising Justices S. Manikumar and Chaly who declared the Food Safety Authority did not have the powers to interfere with the distribution or administering of the holy sacrament in the churches.
“The practice of administering the holy sacrament, which is relatively (sic) called the Eucharist, commemorates the last supper of Lord Jesus Christ. The story is the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘this is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me’. In the same way, after supper, he took the cup saying that ‘this cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Justice Chaly observed different Christian churches adopted different approaches while administering holy communion which was never compulsory for even devout Christians but who received the sanctified wafer as a means of nourishing them spiritually. Justice Chaly observed that the allegedly learned doctors failed to show the court that after receiving holy communion, any single person was infected with a communicable disease and ‘therefore, it is not for the court of law to interfere with the centuries old practice, faith, custom and belief followed by the Christian communities and to issue any direction as this association of doctors have sought.”
The point here is that the judges were charitable in disposing off what appeared to be a frivolous petition which impinged on the rights of Christians to practice their own religion which is their own business so long as the nation’s public order, morality or health was not affected. Some sterner judges would have imposed costs on the petitioner which can run into a few lakhs of rupees for wasting precious judicial time by filing frivolous petitions. Again, this was not a public interest litigation (PIL) but a writ petition which is identical to a PIL with the rider that there is no personal interest involved.
Ignorance is a natural state of mind for even allegedly learned doctors who strive to impress others with their efforts to promote health by styming religion.