Laws/Rules on Places Of Worship In Tamil Nadu
- Chronology of The Building Rules in Tamil Nadu
- Law on Seeking Permission from the Authorities
- Case Laws relating to the Tamil Nadu Building Rules
- Judgments relating to opening of Places of Worship
- Judgments relating to places of worship operating without prior approval
- Judgments relating to Seeking a Mandamus from the Court to the District Collector
India is the largest democracy in the world with a Constitution that guarantees fundamental rights to freely live and enjoy the benefits as a citizen of the Country. Article 25 of the Indian Constitution provides for freedom of Religion to freely profess, practice, and propagate the religion of one’s choice. However, the said freedom is subject to public order and so the State can formulate rules and regulations to that effect. So, the Government of Tamil Nadu has enacted rules for the construction and maintenance of any place of religious worship, to ensure there are no encroachments, and all buildings are in adherence to the rules, and not in conflict.
The rules pertaining to religious worship places have existed/evolved/modified over the years through Government orders in Tamil Nadu. The earlier rules of 1920, 1972 & 1997 have been fully repealed/replaced by the Tamil Nadu Combined Development Building Rules, 2019 (to be referred to as TNCDBR, 2019 further in the article). However, the rules are retrospective in deciding approvals or reapplying for NOCs for worship places by Government Officials and the Courts.
Below are the rules earlier enacted in Tamil Nadu in connection to religious buildings or sites of worship.
Chronology of The Building Rules in Tamil Nadu
THE TAMIL NADU DISTRICT MUNICIPALITIES ACT, 1920 - Chapter X – Rule 191 [2(b)] Building rules - That no site shall be used for the construction of a building intended for public worship, if the construction of the building thereon will wound the religious feelings of any class of persons. This is also referred to as the Parent Act.
Rule 317 Penalty for Unlawful Building. — If the construction or reconstruction of any building or well (a) is commenced without the permission of the [Executive Authority], or (b) is carried on or completed otherwise than in accordance with the particulars on which such permission was based,
The Hon’ble Madras High Court while deciding a case relating to the authorities asked the petitioner not to conduct prayers. The petitioner was about to conduct his usual Saturday prayer when certain persons trespassed into his house and raised objections. Thereupon, the petitioner contacted the local police, and a case was registered against the trespassers. Instead of taking the prosecution to its logical conclusion, the authorities advised the petitioner not to conduct any prayer. They also stated that if prayers were conducted, action would be taken. These developments had led to the institution of the present writ petition. The petitioner approached the court through W.P.(MD)No.6951 of 2020 to stop authorities from interfering with the peaceful conducting of prayers in the petitioner’s house along with his family and friends. The Hon’ble Madras High Court in the order dated 25 August 2020 said, “As per the statutory Rule, the petitioner ought to have obtained prior approval of the District Collector before putting the premises to such use.….. Section 317 of the Tamil Nadu District Municipalities Act, 1920 levies a penalty if the construction or reconstruction of any building is carried on or completed in contravention of any lawful order or in breach of any provision contained in the Act or in the Rule made thereunder. Thus, a violation of Rule……. will invite penal action in terms of Section 317 of the Parent Act. That apart, an illegally put-up building will invite demolition also.
As per THE TAMIL NADU MUNICIPALITIES BUILDING RULES, 1972 – Rule 6 (4) – Sites - No site be used for the construction of a building intended for public worship or religious purpose, without the prior approval of the Collector of the district who may effuse such approval, if in his opinion, the use, purpose of the site and building is likely to endanger public peace and order. Provided that an appeal shall lie against the Collector’s decision to the Government who may issue such orders as they deem fit.
As per THE TAMIL NADU PANCHAYAT BUILDING RULES, 1997 – Rule 4 (3) - Application for approval of sites for buildings and huts:- No site shall be used for the construction of a building intended for public worship or religious purposes without the prior approval of the Collector of the district who may refuse such approval, if in his opinion, the use purpose of the site and building is likely to endanger public peace and order.
As per Tamil Nadu Combined Development and Building Rules, 2019 Annexure - XVII Rule (6) Construction of religious buildings - The competent authority shall not entertain any building application for construction of buildings in relation to any religious institution unless such application is accompanied by a No Objection Certificate obtained from the District Collector concerned.
Explanation- For the purpose of this rule, the religious institution shall mean any temple, math, mosque, church, or any other place of worship, that is dedicated for the benefit of or used as of right, by the public as a place of religious worship.
In lieu of the above-stated provisions, one can discern as follows:
- The rule enacted in 1920 placed a bar on the construction of religious places for worship if such construction hurt the religious feelings of any community.
- The rule enacted in 1972 and 1997 mandated prior approval from the District Collector for religious buildings/hut, which means even before a foundation stone is put, the approval must be sought.
- The rule enacted in 2019 mandates a No Objection Certificate from the District Collector before the construction of the religious building or place. The enactment of the 2019 rules has been done by repealing the 1972 and 1997 rules.
Law on Seeking Permission from the Authorities
The Tamil Nadu Building Rules of 1920, 1972, 1997 and 2019[Which rule please specify] clearly specifies the required rules and permission for any religious place of worship, whether small or big, should take prior approval or No Objection Certificate from the District Collector and not post-approval. Post the District collector approval or NOC, the owners must apply to the local Panchayat, Municipality, or Corporation/Metropolitan authorities to get the building plans approved. The TNCDBR, 2019 gives clear specifications for a Religious Building construction in a village, town, and panchayat areas. However, the TNCDBR, 2019 does not give a particular timeline for the District Collector to respond to the applications for prior approval or No Objection Certificate. As a matter of practice, it is seen that these applications are pending for a long time, and it requires several follow-ups and interventions of the Hon’ble High Court for a response.
The TNCDBR, 2019 is relevant because it would apply to new church constructions in the state of Tamil Nadu. Furthermore, it would also apply to any modifications made to existing church buildings in the state of Tamil Nadu. It would also apply to any building or house which needs to be converted to a place of worship. TNCDBR, 2019 has included definitions and guidelines for religious places of worship below, which many Church/Places of worship must know and comply with.
The law relating to is as follows:
“Addition and/or Alteration means a change from one occupancy to another, or a structural change including an addition to the area or change in height or the removal of part of building, or any change to the structure, such as the construction or removal or cutting into of any wall or part of a wall, partition, column, beam, joist, floor including a mezzanine floor or other support, or a change to or closing of any required means of access ingress or egress or a change to fixtures or equipment" as provided in these Rules;
“Advertising Sign” means any surface or structure with characters, letters or illustrations applied thereto and displayed in any manner whatsoever outdoors for the purpose of advertising or giving information or to attract the public to any place, person, public performance, article, or merchandise, and which surface or structure is attached to, forms part of, or is connected with any building, or is fixed to a tree or to the ground or to any pole, screen, fence or hoarding or displayed in space, or in or over any water body included in the jurisdiction of the competent authority;
“Demolition of buildings.” — If any person intends to demolish a building either in whole or in part, he shall submit an application to the executive authority of a local body or agency or person to whom this power has been delegated by the executive authority for permission to execute the work, along with a demolition deed executed by him/her.
No building permission is necessary for the following alterations, which do not otherwise violate any provisions regarding general building requirements, structural stability, and fire safety requirements of this Rule; (a) plastering and patch repairs; (b) re-roofing or renewals of roof including roof of intermediate floors at the same height; (c) flooring and re-flooring; (d) opening and closing of windows, ventilators and doors not opening towards other's properties and/or public road or property; (e) replacing fallen bricks/stones (f) construction or re-construction of sunshade not more than 75cms. in width, within one's land and not overhanging over a public street; (g) construction or re-construction of parapet not more than 1.5 m. in height and also construction or re-construction of boundary wall not exceeding 2 m (h) white-washing, painting, etc. including erection of false ceiling in any floor at the permissible clear height provided the false ceiling in no way can be put to use as a loft, etc.
Rule 8 of the TNCDBR, 2019 gives a detailed list of documents for planning requirements that must be accompanied by the Applications respective owners to seek approval or NOC from the competent authority. The format of applications and guidelines under TNCDBR, 2019 to the competent authority is available in the Annexures. 
Case Laws relating to the Tamil Nadu Building Rules
As Christians, it is prevalent for them to congregate and have fellowship once or twice a week either at a residence/hall to meditate or worship as per the Christian practices. The TNCDBR, 2019 stipulates that any building put up with proper approval for residence cannot be used exclusively as a place of worship unless approved by the competent authority or modified as a religious place of worship after NOC from the District Collector. The competent authority has the power to intervene as their duty or based on complaints from the public to ensure that the said purpose of the building or site approved of, is maintained as per rules, even if it has been existing for years. The Madras High Court has been pronouncing orders/judgements on residential places of worship, that have approached the court for mandamus or certiorari of applications or orders issued by the Government officials to not use it for worship unless approved.
For this article, I have referred to 66 judgements/orders of the Honourable Madras High Court (including the Madurai Bench) from 2019 onwards. Out of the 66 judgements/orders, 53 orders, which is about 80%, have not allowed Christian worship at a place without proper DC approval. Only 13 orders, that is about 20%, have allowed for worship places to continue without seeking prior DC approval or NOC in their own approved land/residence based on merits. I will be quoting a few case laws that have allowed worship and not allowed to convert a residence into a place of worship below for a better understanding.
Judgments relating to opening of Places of Worship
The Honourable Madras High Court in the selected cases below has allowed worship to continue at the approved residence without any prior approval or NOC from the District Collector based on merits.
In 2020, a petitioner approached the Honourable Madras Court, seeking to quash the permission given by the District Collector to convert a residence into a place of worship/Church, the Court through W.P(MD).No.11276 of 2020 order dated 10 January 2022, said that “……….the District Collector quite apart from examining all aspects had finally granted permission to the fourth respondent to put up a Church, or rather to convert the existing house into a church. It is complained by the learned Counsel for the petitioner that the building or now the Church, is in a residential area. However, it is seen that there is also a temple in that particular residential area. The petitioner should learn to live with everybody else around him. This country takes pride in unity in diversity. There cannot be diversity in unity. The petitioner should accept the group of people living across, and around him and he should also accept that people of various faiths and various caste, creed, and religion and given rights under the constitution. The country is a secular country recognizing the practice of religion. The petitioner cannot make a complaint against the same…..”
In October 2022, the Honourable Madras High Court allowed 3 Writ Petitions filed in 2017 (WP 27120, 27392, 28688/2017), through a common order dated 19 October 2022, that said, “The learned counsel appearing for the petitioner in support of his contentions, relied upon the judgment of the learned Single Judge of this Court in the case of Paul Thankom vs. the State of Tamil Nadu in WP.(MD).No.10782 of 2006, dated 14.08.2012…… In the opinion of this Court, there is no need to get prior permission from any authority for assembling and conducting prayers in a dwelling place. However, if there is any nuisance caused due to noise pollution or for any other bona fide reasons, it is always open to the authorities to take necessary action under the provisions of the relevant statutes. But before resorting to any action, the authorities on the basis of concrete evidence, should arrive at a subjective satisfaction that there exists an infringement of the right of others, under Part III of the Constitution of India to enforce public order. Frivolous complaints to restrict freedom to practice and profess any form of religion should not entertained, as it would be affecting the constitutional rights of a person. Nobody has a right to affect the religious practice of a person…………… One should not forget that our glorious constitution enshrines, secularism, fraternity, and equality. Unity in diversity is our strength.”
Host of Holy God Trust approached the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court through WP(MD)No.23562 of 2019 to quash a District Collector’s order, directing the Trust members to seek appropriate permissions for conducting prayers in the premises. Since the Trust members are Christians, the meeting session will commence and end up with the prayer and the trust worked for the public welfare, in the order dated 21 January 2020, relied on another order; “In W.P.(MD)No.710 of 2019, dated 11.01.2019 filed by a person similarly placed as that of the petitioner this Court has held as follows: “Following the above decisions and the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India to the citizens, in the opinion of this Court, there is no need to get prior permission from any authority for assembling and conducting prayers in a dwelling place without causing nuisance or disturbance to others and without causing hindrance to the general public. It is the duty of the authorities to safeguard the protection of every citizen of this Country to practice constitutional rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India. However, in a civilized Society in the name of religion, activities, that disturb others, in any manner and for bona fide reasons, cannot be permitted and hence, if there is any nuisance caused due to noise pollution or for any other bona fide reasons, it is always open to the authorities to take necessary action under the provisions of the relevant statues. But, before resorting to any action, the authorities, on the basis of concrete evidence, should arrive at a subjective satisfaction that there exists infringement of a right of others, under the Constitution of India, to enforce public order.”
Judgments relating to places of worship operating without prior approval
The petitioner purchased the property in 1986 in Kanyakumari District and built a house by obtaining necessary building permission from the Town panchayat. The petitioner was conducting regular prayers in his house and the local officials has suggested him to obtain change of building approval in the name of the church and therefore, he applied for a grant of permission before the District Collector to conduct prayer in his house building. However, the request of the petitioner was rejected by the order of the District Collector to not convert it into a Church since Kanyakumari is a communally sensitive district even though the place of worship has existed for 28 years without any law-and-order issues. The Petitioner approached the Honourable Madras High Court to allow worship through WP(MD)No.16817 of 2014, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court through an order dated: 28 April 2023 held that, It is relevant to refer to the judgment of this Court in W.P.(MD). No.11780 of 2012 dated 10.08.2022, wherein this court has held as follows: “The Government of Tamil Nadu has issued G.O.Ms.No.916 dated 23.04.1986. In the said report, Thiru. Justice P. Venugopal's Commission has made many recommendations to preserve communal harmony in the Kanyakumari District. As per recommendation No.2, the Government should take steps to avoid the construction of religious places very nearby each other. The said recommendation has been accepted by the Government under the above said G.O. ……. In the light of the above said facts, Building Rules do not permit conversion of a residential building into a Prayer Hall.”
The petitioner in the below case has been worshipping with his family and other known community members at his own house/residence and was asked by the local Police to stop using his own house for public prayer and worship. The petitioner approached the Honourable High Court to allow regular worship and the court said through WP(MD)No.16226 of 2022 order dated 25 July 2022, “If the law prescribes that something is to be done in a certain manner, it shall be done in that manner and not in any other manner. The consequence has been clearly, categorically, and unambiguously laid down. One must obtain the prior approval of the District Collector for the construction of a building intended for public worship and religious purposes and only thereafter start construction. The meaning of the Rule is simple and plain. It only requires strict implementation and application. If a building for public worship or religious purpose has been constructed without the prior approval of the District Collector, then law will have to take its own course.”
In another case, a petitioner approached the Honourable High Court to stop a particular house from being used as a place of worship without prior and the court through W.P.(MD)NO.16833 OF 2019 order dated 25 August 2022, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court ordered that, “The issue on hand is no longer res integra. It has been held in many cases that residential houses cannot be converted into public religious prayer halls. The building rules clearly stipulate that before putting up any such construction, prior approval of the District Collector must be obtained. The respondent cannot use an existing residential building as a public religious prayer house. It is the duty of the official respondents to ensure that no public religious prayers are held in the petition mentioned site.”
Judgments relating to Seeking a Mandamus from the Court to the District Collector
As mentioned in the article above, since there is no specific timeline in the building rule for the District collector to respond to the prior approval or No Objection Certificate application. It is observed that the applications are pending for years at the DC office, and one must approach the High Court to seek a response. To understand the seeking of direction, 10 orders/judgments of the Madras High Court were referred to, and was able to speak to 2 Writ petitioners to know if the District Collector has responded in the timeline given by the Court. The Court generally gives a timeline of 6 to 12 weeks for the District Collector to respond to the application for prior approval or NOC.
Below is a case where the Petitioner’s application had been pending for more than 4 years at the District Collector’s office and the petitioner approached the Honourable Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court through WP (MD) No: 4431 of 2016, through the order dated 20 February 2020, directed the District Collector, “Since the petitioner is seeking approval for construction of a Church, this Court is of the view that the respondents should consider the petitioner's request and to decide whether the petitioner can be permitted to put up construction. Hence, without expressing any opinion on the merits of the petitioner's representation, this Court is inclined to pass the following direction. The first respondent (District Collector) is directed to consider the petitioner's representation dated 29.10.2015 and pass appropriate orders on merits and in accordance with law within a period of twelve weeks from the date of receipt of a copy of this order after giving opportunity to the petitioner as well as the others living in the village.”
It is clear from the above discussion that prior approval and No objection certificate from the District Collector (DC) is a mandatory requirement to construct a new place of worship, anywhere in the state of Tamil Nadu. The planning permission and building permit can be obtained from the Corporation/Metropolitan, Municipal Commission or Panchayat Office only with the NOC attached, for religious buildings as per the Tamil Nadu Combined Development and Building Rules, 2019.
The TNCDBR, 2019 is a comprehensive go-to guide for any construction related query in the state of Tamil Nadu. For more information, visit: https://chennaicorporation.gov.in/images/TNCDRBR-2019.pdf . For more information on the Hon’ble High Court Orders/judgements, visit: https://www.mhc.tn.gov.in/judis/index.php/casestatus/caseno
 Rule 191, The Tamil Nadu District Municipalities Act, 1920, Page 173, available at: https://www.tn.gov.in/dtp/pdfs/TN_District_Municipalities_Act_1920.pdf
 Rule 317, The Tamil Nadu District Municipalities Act, 1920, Page 249, available at: https://www.tn.gov.in/dtp/pdfs/TN_District_Municipalities_Act_1920.pdf
 Rule 6, The Tamil Nadu Municipalities Building Rules, 1972, Page 5&6, available at: https://www.tn.gov.in/tcp/acts_rules/Tn_District_Municipalities_Building_Rules_1972.pdf
 Rule 4, The Tamil Nadu Municipalities Building Rules, 1997, Page 4, available at: https://www.tn.gov.in/tcp/acts_rules/Tn_Panchayat_building_rules_1997.pdf
 Annexure XVII (6), Tamil Nadu Combined Development and Building Rules, 2019, Page 175&176, available at: https://chennaicorporation.gov.in/images/TNCDRBR-2019.pdf
 Rule 74, (2), Tamil Nadu Combined Development and Building Rules, 2019, Page 94 , available at: https://chennaicorporation.gov.in/images/TNCDRBR-2019.pdf
 Rule 3, Tamil Nadu Combined Development and Building Rules, 2019, Page 13, available at: https://chennaicorporation.gov.in/images/TNCDRBR-2019.pdf
 Rule 2, Tamil Nadu Combined Development and Building Rules, 2019, Page 2, available at: https://chennaicorporation.gov.in/images/TNCDRBR-2019.pdf
 Rule 2, Tamil Nadu Combined Development and Building Rules, 2019, Page 2&3, available at: https://chennaicorporation.gov.in/images/TNCDRBR-2019.pdf
 Rule 12, Tamil Nadu Combined Development and Building Rules, 2019, Page 25, available at: https://chennaicorporation.gov.in/images/TNCDRBR-2019.pdf
 Rule 10 (5), Tamil Nadu Combined Development and Building Rules, 2019, Page 23&24, available at: https://chennaicorporation.gov.in/images/TNCDRBR-2019.pdf
 Rule 8, Tamil Nadu Combined Development and Building Rules, 2019, Page 17-22, available at: https://chennaicorporation.gov.in/images/TNCDRBR-2019.pdf
 Annexures, Tamil Nadu Combined Development and Building Rules, 2019, Page 95, available at: https://chennaicorporation.gov.in/images/TNCDRBR-2019.pdf
 W.P(MD).No.11276/2020, Page 6&7, available at: paulrajvsthedistrictcollectoron10january2022-409125.pdf (livelaw.in)
 WP.No.27120, 27632, & 28668 of 2017, The Madras High Court, Pages 12-14, available at: https://www.mhc.tn.gov.in/judis/index.php/casestatus/viewpdf/696448
 WP(MD)No.16817 of 2014, The Madurai Bench of Madras High Court, Page 6-8, available at: https://www.mhc.tn.gov.in/judis/index.php/casestatus/viewpdf/878974
 W.P.(MD)NO.16833/2019, The Madurai Bench of Madras High Court Page 3, available at: https://www.mhc.tn.gov.in/judis/index.php/casestatus/viewpdf/843598