The Supreme Court considered whether the Sabarimala temple's customary religious practice, which prohibits the entry of women, violates fundamental rights guaranteed to women by the Indian Constitution.
On 28th September 2018, a 4:1 majority held that the custom is unconstitutional. Justice Indu Malhotra dissented. Here are the four judgments:
The Sabarimala Temple, considered the abode of Lord Ayyappa, is located in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Western Ghat mountain ranges of Pathanamthitta District, Kerala. It prohibits the entry of women in their ‘menstruating years’ (between the ages of 10 to 50), on the grounds that it is a place of worship.
In 2006, Indian Young Lawyers Association filed a public interest litigation petition before the Supreme Court challenging the Sabrimala Temple's custom of excluding women. The Association argued that the custom violates the rights to equality under Article 14 and freedom of religion under Article 25 of female worshippers.
The State contended that the temple's priests have the final authority in this matter. The Travancore Devaswom Board has the legal authority to manage the Sabarimala temple's administration. Article 26 of the Constitution, guarantees a religious denomination the right to manage its own internal religious affairs. Furthermore, the Sabarimala custom was protected by Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965 ("Public Worship Rules"). The rule allowed the exlusion of women from public places of worship, if the exclusion was based on 'custom'.
In 1991, the exclusion had been challenged before the Kerala High Court in S. Mahendran v. The Secretary, Travancore. The Court ruled that the exclusion 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. On 7th March 2008, the matter was referred to a three-judge Bench. 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. Finally on 13th October 2017, a Bench comprising of Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice R. Banumathi, and Justice Ashok Bhushan ordered a Constitution Bench to pass judgement on the case. On 28th September 2018, the Constitution Bench delivered its judgment.
In a 4:1 majority, the court ruled that Sabarimala's exclusion of women violated the fundamental rights of women between the ages of 10-50 years and Rule 3(b) of the Public Worship Rules was unconctitutional. Justice Indu Malhotra delivered a dissenting opinion observind that in a secular polity, it was not for the Courts to interfere in matters of religion and the same must be left to those practicing the religion.
Three separate review petitions have subsequently been filed by the National Ayyappa Devotees (Women's) Association, the Nair Service Sociry, & the All Kerala Brahmin's Association.
1. 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 ages of 10 and 50 years. Does this practice violate Articles 14 and 15(3) of the Constitution by restricting the entry of women on the grounds of sex?
3. Whether the practice constitutes an ‘essential religious practice’ under Article 25? Whether a religious institution can assert its claim to do so under the right to manage its own affairs in the matters of religion?
2. 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?
4. Whether Sabarimala temple has a denominational character? If it does, is it permissible on the part of a ‘religious denomination’ managed out of the 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)?