R.P Gupta; Raja Ramachandran; K.Ramamoorthy for the Petitioners.
Jaideep Gupta; Liz Mathew; Venugopal; V.Giri; State of Kerala; Rakesh Dwivedi; K. Radhakrishanan for the Respondents.
The Court’s cross cutting decision between the right to equality and freedom of religion in the case of women’s right to enter a temple of worship.
Justice I. Malhotra, in her dissenting opinion noted that the case should fail for lack of standing by the Petitioners. Justice Malhotra also held that Ayyappans or worshippers at the Sabarimala Temple satisfied the requirements of being a religious denomination, and therefore could avail the protections of Article 26. Thereby, stated that the limited restriction on the entry of women would not be violative of Part III of the Constitution
Writ Petition (Civil) No. 373 of 2006
The case was centered around the Sabarimala shrine, which is a Hindu temple dedicated to God Ayyappan, in Kerala. As per tradition, women of menstruating age, i.e. between 10-50 years, were not allowed to enter the temple as the temple was dedicated to a celibate God, and there was a belief that women of
menstruating age would cause an affront to the value of celibacy in the Temple.
This exclusion was justified on the basis of ancient custom, which was legitimised by Rule 3(b), framed under the Kerala Hindu places of public worship (Authorization of entry) rules 1965. Rule 3(b) provided for the exclusion of “women at such time during which they are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship.”
The Kerala High Court, in the case of S. Mahendran vs. The Secretary,Travancore Devaswom Board, Thiruvananthpuram and Ors (AIR 1993 Ker. 42) had held that such a restriction was not violative of the fundamental rights of women under the Constitution. The matter was finally placed before a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court.
As such, the issues before the Court were as follows;
The Petitioners argued that the restriction of women entering the Temple was unconstitutional as it violates Articles 14, 15, 17, 25 and 26 of the Indian Constitution.
The said Articles relates to;
 Article 14 in the constitution of India 1949:
Equality before law the state shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.
 Article 25 Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion:
All persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.
 Article 15: Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth:
The state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion race, caste, sex, and place of birth. No citizen shall, on grounds only of religious, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment.
 Article 17: Abolition of Untouchability:
Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.
 Article 26: Freedom to manage religious affairs subject to public order, morality and health, every religious denomination or any section thereof shall have the right.
A noteworthy finding related to the Freedom of Religion in this case was the Court’s finding that ‘devotion’ in the case of religion cannot be gender discriminatory. Furthermore, the Chief Justice stated Obiter that religion is way of life linked to the dignity of an individual and patriarchal practices based on the exclusion of one gender in favour of another could not be allowed to infringe upon the fundamental freedom to practice and profess one’s religion.
The court delivered its verdict in this case by 4:1 majority which held that the practice violated the fundamental rights to equality, liberty and freedom of religion, Article 14, 15, 19(1), 21 and 25(1). It struck down Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship Act as unconstitutional. Rule 3(b) allowed for Hindu denominations to exclude women from public places of worship, if the exclusion was based on custom.
The reasoning afforded was that the Rule in question prevented women from exercising their right to religious freedom under Article 25(1) and did not warrant any exemption as an essential religious practice of a separate religious denomination. The majority of the Court did not find that the devotees of Lord Ayyappa qualified as a separate religion and despite Article 26(b) permitting religious institutions to manage their own affairs. As Hindus, they were subject to the provisions of Article 25(2)(b) which permitted reform of Hindu religious institutions. The Court discussed that a practice that discriminated or segregated based on biological characteristics could never be constitutional, as it infringed the dignity, freedom and autonomy of women.
The Court specifically noted that the menstrual status of a woman was a part of her person and privacy, and that compulsory disclosure of the same was violative of a woman’s right to privacy under Article 21. The Court held that the restriction of women entering the said Temple was unconstitutional and therefore allowed entry of women of all age groups to the Sabarimala Temple, thus, held that “Devotion cannot be subjected to Gender Discrimination”.