With churches in Kerala, cutting across denominations, or sections, up in arms against the draft Kerala Church (Properties and Institutions) Bill, 2019, which proposes fair and transparent administration of funds and properties owned by the Church, the CPI(M)-led LDF government in the state has indicated that it will not enact the Bill for now.
Religious leaders and members of various churches allege that through the proposed law the state is attempting to take over administration of churches.
Following the protests, CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said the government has no plan to go ahead with the Bill. “There are several existing laws to look into such issues. Certain quarters are spreading canards that the Left government is going to implement suggestions in the Bill,’’ he said.
Kerala Law Reforms Commission, headed by former Supreme Court judge K T Thomas, had drafted the Bill.
As the Commission’s top officials defended the need for transparency, George Joseph, chairman of All-Kerala Church Action Council, a reformist outfit, also said churches are afraid of getting their accounts audited and presented before a competent authority for review.
“Bishops are afraid of transparency in managing church funds, therefore this protest. The suggestions in the Bill should be implemented — it is the need of the hour,’’ Joseph said.
There is no law at present on administration of properties of different Church denominations. Churches, the draft Bill notes, have large amount of properties and assets, acquired through various sources, and these are managed by church heads or bishops. It states that there are instances when these properties are alienated without consultation at proper forums, resulting in financial losses, which affect the morale of devotees.
The draft Bill suggests formation of a tribunal, where any church member can file a petition related to administration of church properties or funds if the member is not satisfied about any decision of the bishop or church head. It says the government should form the tribunal, to be headed by a district judge, and that accounts of every church denomination will be subjected to annual audit by a qualified chartered accountant (CA), or a team of CAs selected by the denomination concerned.
Slamming the draft law, Fr Varghese Vallikkattu, deputy secretary-general of Kerala Catholic Bishops Council, said it is an attempt to tarnish the Church’s image in public eye. “No one has demanded formation of a tribunal. What the Law Reforms Commission has stated is only the voice of disgruntled elements in Church. The Constitution has given the (Church) right to manage assets. The suggestions in the Bill are anti-Constitutional. If they are implemented, management of church properties will go to atheists. We are strongly opposed to the Bill,’’ he said.
Commission secretary V M Chacko said if a tribunal is formed, leaders of different Churches will have to present accounts before a judicial organisation, and the Church leaders are afraid of this. He asserted that suggestions in the draft Bill do not infringe upon rights or powers of Church denominations.