The Kerala High Court recently dismissed a Public Interest Litigation against the religious practice of administering holy sacrament in Churches.
Qualified Private Medical Practitioners Association, an organisation of modern medical doctors and dentists had filed the PIL mainly contending that administering holy sacrament commemorating the last supper of Jesus Christ by distributing bread and wine in Christian churches, is an unhealthy practice and the same poses serious health hazards to the general public, especially the communicants.
The practice followed in Churches is that the priests serve wine from a single chalice using the same spoon into the mouth of every communicants. According to petitioners, this 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., the petitioner contended. The prayer sought was to direct the Food Safety Authority to ensure that hygienic practices are followed in all religious institutions including churches where food is distributed and to ensure such distribution is only of safe food within the meaning of Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006.
Referring to the provisions of the Act, the bench of the Chief Justice S. Manikumar and Justice Shaji P. Chaly observed that the Food Safety Authority is not vested with any powers to interfere with the distribution or administering of holy sacrament in the churches. The court also observed that the practice of receiving the holy sacrament by members of the religious denomination in a manner followed in the community is the personal liberty of the members and well protected under Article 21 of the Constitution. Such a religious practice is an essential and integral part of it, the bench observed. It said:
The practice of administering the holy sacrament, which is relatively called the Eucharist, commemorates the last supper of Lord Jesus Christ. The story is thus, 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 (1 Corinthians 11: 23-25). Most Christians receive holy Eucharist commonly called holy bread and holy wine occasionally, some do it regularly, some more often and some less often. It is a faith followed by the Christians, who are the disciples of Jesus Christ; but not compulsory. The Catholic community calls it Eucharist or the mass. Some of the Christian denominations call it 'holy communion' and it commonly denoted ' holy sacrament'. Some of them give more importance to it; but all Christians believe that when the holy bread and the wine is received, they are following the principles and the covenants instructed by the Jesus Christ. Such a ceremony is instituted to be observed sincerely and faithfully and with dedication till Jesus Christ returns. It is pursuant to this faith and belief, Christians receive the holy communion. In fact, various Christian denominations have different approaches with regard to the administration and receipt of holy sacrament. However, it is never compulsorily insisted upon and it is received by the believers due to their absolute faith as followers of Christianity. That apart, the holy communion is most sacred and considered to be holy by the Christian community and therefore, the same is administered or given by the priests with utmost care and after ensuring hygiene. So much so, the holy sacrament is received by a believer out of faith and it is not a food consumed by the believer to satisfy the hunger, and it has got its own religious and spiritual significance and importance.
Referring to Article 25 and 26 of the Constitution, the Court observed that receiving holy sacrament by a believer is nothing but an expression of his/her faith in the said practice followed for centuries.It observed that the belief of a citizen in a particular practice followed by a religious denomination is also an expression of freedom to think and accept the faith he/she believes to be true and is entitled as of right to conserve the said faith.
While dismissing the petition, the Court also noted that the petitioner has not made out any specific instances, where due to the administration of holy sacrament by the priests in the churches, any communicable diseases or health hazards have been caused to any of the recipients of the holy sacrament. It said:
Therefore, in our considered opinion, the receipt of the holy sacrament by the Christians is a matter of absolute faith and belief of the Christians, and unless and until it is established that the act of administration of holy sacrament has interfered with the public order, morality and health, interference under Article 226 is next to impossibility. However, if at all any changes are to be made in the practice, beliefs and faith, it is to be done by the Church authorities themselves and it is not possible for the writ court under Article 226 of the Constitution of India to issue any directions to the State and its authorities to take action in the matter of administration of holy sacrament by the priests in the churches.