The Andhra Pradesh High Court has sought the Government's reply while admitting a Public Interest Litigation filed by one Yicharla Anil Kumar on behalf of the Legal Rights Protection Forum, challenging a Government Order (GO) dated 14 May 2021 by which a salary of Rs.5,000 per month was decided to be paid to the Pastors serving in Churches across Andhra Pradesh.
The state government was already paying remuneration to Archakas serving in Temples and Imams and Mauzzins serving in Mosques. By the impugned Government Order, the government decided to enhance remuneration to those categories while starting monthly remuneration to Pastors.
A Division Bench of Chief Justice Aroop Kumar Goswamy and Justice Nainala Jayasurya directed the Advocate General who appeared for the state to file a counter affidavit within three weeks.
The impugned Government Order, passed by the General Administration Department of the state, claims to be intended for promoting religious harmony in the state and enhancement of financial support to the places of worship of 3 important religious communities of the state viz. Hindus, Muslims, and Christians.
The Petitioner had argued that the GO is arbitrary, illegal, and violative of Articles 14, 15, and 27 of the Constitution of India.
Article 27 prohibits compelling anyone to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are specifically appropriated in payment of expenses for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination.
Petitioner has contended that the remuneration will be paid by the public exchequer from the hard-earned money of citizens that is contributed by way of taxes (direct or indirect) and it cannot be spent on construction of religious institutions, disbursing money to the public on religion basis in the guise of welfare schemes, etc.
The Petitioner seeks to distinguish the payment to Archakas of Temples by stating that enhanced remuneration to the Archakas would be paid from the Endowments Department whereas the payment to Imams and Pastors would be paid from the public exchequer.
The Andhra Pradesh Endowments Department is a department of the state government that has 23,834 Hindu Religious Institutions under its control.
Whereas the remuneration to Imams and Mauzzins will be paid only for Mosques that are registered with the state Wakf Board, since Churches are not under any state regulatory or supervisory mechanism, the GO prescribes eligibility criteria for Pastors to receive the benefit, as follows:-
"(a) the Church should be registered under the Societies Act;
(b) the land should be registered in the name of Church;
(c) the institution should not have any other source of income."
The Petitioner has contended that Churches receive income from visiting devotees and that there is no mechanism to track such income. According to the Petitioner, the condition that the Church should not have any other source of income is ambiguous and contrary to the stated object of the GO.
The Petitioner was represented by Advocate V Phaniduth Chanakya in this case while the State was represented by Advocate General S Sriram.