The Supreme Court will consider whether Sabarimala temple's customary religious practice which prohibits the entry of women (between the ages of 10 and 50) offends the equality guarantee under the Indian Constitution.
In 2006, Indian Young Lawyers Association filed a public interest litigation petition before the Supreme Court challenging Sabrimala temple's practice of prohibiting the entry of women. The Association argues that this prohibition violates the right to equality under Artice 14 and the freedom of religion under Article 25.
The Sabarimala temple, considered the abode of Lord Ayappa, is located in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Western Ghat mountain ranges of Pathanamthitta District of Kerala. It prohibits the entry of women in their ‘menstruating years’ (between the ages of 10 to 50) to a place of public worship. Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965 ("Public Worship Rules") justifies this practice as being based on "custom and usage". The State's contention is that since the daily administration of the temple vests in the Travancore Devaswom Board, the priests' opinion has final authority regarding entry restrictions, place of worship etc. Hence Article 25 protects entry barriers for women in the Sabarimala Temple.
In 1991, this ban had been challenged before the Kerala High Court in S. Mahendran v. The Secretary, Travancore. The Court ruled that the ban was constitutional and justified, as it was a long-standing custom prevailing since time immemorial.
On 18th August 2006, the Supreme Court issued notices to the parties. The matter was referred to a 3-judge Bench on March 7th, 2008. It came up for hearing seven years later, on 11th January 2016. On 20th February 2017, the Court expressed its inclination to refer the case to a Constitution Bench. On 13th October 2017, a bench comprising of Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice R. Banumathi, and Justice Ashok Bhushan, passed an order for the formation of a constitution Bench to decide on the issues.
Whether Rule 3 of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules permits a ‘religious denomination’ to ban the entry of women between the age of 10 and 50 years. Does this practice violate Articles 14 and 15(3) of the Constitution by restricting entry of women on the ground of sex?
Whether the exclusionary practice based on a biological factor exclusive to the female gender amounts to ‘discrimination’? Whether this practice violates the core of Articles 14, 15 and 17? Whether this is protected by ‘morality’ under Articles 25 and 26?
Whether the practice constitutes an ‘essential religious practice’ under Article 25? Whether a religious institution can assert its claim to do so under their the right to manage its own affairs in the matters of religion?
Whether Sabarimala temple has a denominational character? If it is, is it permissible on the part of a ‘religious denomination’ managed out of Consolidated Fund of Kerala and Tamil Nadu to indulge in practices violating constitutional principles/morality embedded in Articles 14, 15(3), 39(a) and 51-A(e)?