Ban on entry of women in Sabrimala Temple: Matter referred to Constitution bench

Supreme Court: In the issue relating to ban of female devotees between the age group of 10 to 50 from entering the Sabrimala Temple of Lord Ayyappa in Kerala, the 3-judge bench of Dipak Misra, CJ and R. Banumathi and Ashok Bhushan, JJ referred the matter to a Constitution bench.

Advocate RP Gupta, appearing for the petitioners argued that there was no religious custom or usage in the Hindu religion specially in Pampa river region to disallow women during menstrual period. He said:

“banning entry of women would be against the basic tenets of Hindu religion.”

Senior Counsel K Ramamoorthy, the amicus curiae in the matter, submitted before the that the question as to what is religious practice on the basis of religious belief which would apply not only to Ayyappa temple but would also apply to all the prominent temples all over India, cannot be decided by this bench and, therefore, the matter should be referred to a Constitution Bench.

Senior counsel Raju Ramachandran, also the amicus curiae in the matter, said:

“The right of a woman to visit and enter the temple as a devotee of the deity, as a believer in Hindu faith is an essential facet of her right and restriction of the present nature creates a dent in that right which is protected under Article 25 of the Constitution.”

Refuting the contention of the State of Kerala and the Devaswom Board that the practice is based on religious custom and the same is essential to religious practice and that there is not a total prohibition, he said that such a religious practice cannot be essential to the religion and it has been only imposed by subordinate legislation. He added:

“a significant section of adult women is excluded and the singular ground for exclusion is sex and the biological feature of menstruation. To put it differently, the discrimination is not singularly on the ground of sex but also sex and the biological factor which is a characteristic of the particular sex.”

The State and the Devaswom Board had contended that the petition under Article 32 of the Constitution was not maintainable as no right affecting public at large was involved in the case. It was further said:

“Ayyappa devotees form a denomination by themselves and have every right to regulate and manage its own affairs in matters of religion.”

It was argued that the Kerala High Court decision, where it was held restriction imposed by the Davaswom Board is not violative of Articles 15, 25 and 26 of the Constitution, would operate as res judicata.

The following questions have been framed for Constitution bench’s consideration:

  • Whether the exclusionary practice which is based upon a biological factor exclusive to the female gender amounts to “discrimination” and thereby violates the very core of Articles 14, 15 and 17 and not protected by ‘morality’ as used in Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution?
  • Whether the practice of excluding such women constitutes an “essential religious practice” under Article 25 and whether a religious institution can assert a claim in that regard under the umbrella of right to manage its own affairs in the matters of religion?
  • Whether Ayyappa Temple has a denominational character and, if so, is it permissible on the part of a ‘religious denomination’ managed by a statutory board and financed under Article 290-A of the Constitution of India out of Consolidated Fund of Kerala and Tamil Nadu can indulge in such practices violating constitutional principles/ morality embedded in Articles 14, 15(3), 39(a) and 51-A(e)?
  • Whether Rule 3 of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules permits ‘religious denomination’ to ban entry of women between the age of 10 to 50 years? And if so, would it not play foul of Articles 14 and 15(3) of the Constitution by restricting entry of women on the ground of sex?
  • Whether Rule 3(b) of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965 is ultra vires the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965 and, if treated to be intra vires, whether it will be violative of the provisions of Part III of the Constitution? [Indian Young Lawyers Association v. State of Kerala, 2017 SCC OnLine SC 1236, decided on 13.10.2017]

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