Bombay HC ruling on freedom of conscience hailed

September 25, 2014 02:44 pm | Updated 03:37 pm IST - MUMBAI:

Legal experts have hailed the recent judgment of the Bombay High Court restricting the State from compelling anyone to disclose their religion, as "progressive and balanced."

"It is an excellent judgment with no negative implications whatsoever. Why should anybody know about my religion, or whether I believe in any? It is a private affair. The court seems to have accepted that religion is a social construct," advocate Mihir Desai, a leading human rights lawyer, said.

Advocate Uday Warunjikar too welcomed the judgment as "progressive and balanced". "The judgment is in accordance with the mandate of the Constitution of India, and in accordance with the prevalent situation in the country," he said.

No citizen can be compelled to declare her religion in any form or declaration, the Bombay High Court ruled here on Tuesday. "Freedom of conscience under Article 25 of the Constitution encompasses in itself a freedom to an individual to take a view that he does not belong to any religion.  No authority which is a State can infringe the fundamental right to freedom of conscience," the division bench of Justices Abhay Oka and Girish Kulkarni held.

They were hearing a PIL filed by three individuals belonging to a registered organisation named “Full Gospel Church of God” which claims to have more than 4,000 members.  The petitioners claimed that the organisation does believe in the existence of Lord Jesus Christ, but does not believe in any religion, much less Christianity.

They had made an application to the State Government Printing Press for notifying the change of religion. "They wanted a gazette notification to be issued recording that they are not the Christians but they belong to “No Religion”.  The applications were rejected by the Government Printing Press," the court said. 

They thereafter filed a petition before the court claiming that their fundamental right to freedom of conscience was being infringed upon. They contended that a person can always declare that she or he belongs to "no religion".

The State Government had rejected this view. But the court observed that Article 25 of the Constitution included the right to be an atheist.

"There is a complete freedom for every individual to decide whether he wants to adopt or profess any religion or not.   He may not believe in any religion. If he is professing a particular religion, he can give up the religion and claim that he does not belong to any religion.  There is no law which compels a citizen or any individual to have a religion. The freedom of conscience conferred by the Constitution includes a right not to profess, practice or propagate any religion," the order stated.

"The freedom conferred by Article 25 of the Constitution also includes a right of an individual to claim that he is an 'Atheist'. As the freedom of conscience confers a fundamental right to entertain a religious belief, it also confers a   right on an individual to express an opinion that he does not belong to any religion," it further said.

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