The Andhra Pradesh High Court recently stayed a State government’s order providing financial assistance to Christians for pilgrimage to Bethlehem, Jerusalem and other places connected with the life of Jesus Christ.
While staying the order issued last year, a division bench headed by Chief Justice AR Dave ruled that the government should not spend public money for any pilgrimage.
The court order came on a public interest litigation challenging the constitutional validity of the order issued by the minorities welfare department on July 21 last year.
The petitioner argued that a secular State cannot fund pilgrimage to Jerusalem and other holy places. He contended that the Indian Constitution in Article 266 clearly states how the funds of State could be spent.
Under the order, the State government had announced a financial assistance of Rs. 20,000 to each Christian pilgrim undertaking seven-day tour to Jordan and Israel.
The first batch of 51 Christian pilgrims had undertaken the pilgrimage with the government assistance in November last year. The total cost of the pilgrimage was Rs. 56,000 for each pilgrim.
The pilgrimage includes visit to Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Jordan River, Dead Sea and Sea of Galilee and other important places connected with the life of Jesus Christ.
The State government had allocated Rs.20 million for the purpose in the 2008-09 budget.
Dealing with two separate petitions, the court set aside a State government order granting aid to pilgrims bound for Jerusalem; three batches of pilgrims have availed of the subsidy. The State government has also prepared an order to provide assistance to pilgrims bound for Manasarovar and is drawing up guidelines for this.
The State government has decided to approach the Supreme Court against the interim order delivered by a division bench comprising Chief Justice Anil R Dave and Justice Ramesh Ranganathan.
The order could have wide-ranging repercussions across the country. While the court did not specifically mention the Haj subsidy, it did ask the government to stop financial assistance to pilgrims of “all religions”.
This was interpreted to include the Haj pilgrimage, which the Union government assists in the form of a Rs 12,000 airfare subsidy to each pilgrim.
The court was dealing with separate petitions opposing subsidy for pilgrimages to Jerusalem and to Hindu holy sites, and it decided to expand the scope of the petitions to “all religions”.
Asked about the impact of the ruling on the Haj subsidy, the Andhra Pradesh State Haj committee executive officer, Mr MA Quddus, said: “There is a case pending in the Supreme Court on subsidy for Haj pilgrims. The court had asked the government to continue the existing policy until further orders.”
The Andhra Pradesh government earlier strongly opposed the court taking up the petitions, saying it was “interference” in the administration. Additional advocate-general A Satyaprasad said that extending financial help to pilgrims was a policy decision, in which the courts had no say.
The judges said: “We will not interfere if it is in the larger public interest, but if the government is giving concession to individuals in the name of religion it, (the court) will definitely look into the issue.” The judges said they would not allow taxpayer funds to be spent on pilgrimages.
The State law officer argued that though the government had no religion, the Constitution did not prohibit it from providing aid to pilgrims. “The concept of secularism does not mean prohibiting the State from taking welfare measures for pilgrims of various religions,” he said. “We should not forget that taxpayers elect governments, and allow them to function and spend money.”
He said that under Article 212 of the Constitution, budgetary allocations were the prerogative of the Legislature; and the courts were prohibited from interfering.
The court said: “We are not against funding for construction of temples, mosques, churches or any other shrine by the government… but we cannot allow the government to spend taxpayer money on individuals.”
The court said Article 152 of the Constitution empowered the courts to review policy decisions. The court said it intended to expand the scope of the writ petitions beyond the prayer of the petitioners by including all pilgrimages undertaken by persons of all religions.