Supreme Court begins hearing on women's entry into Sabarimala temple

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New Delhi : The Supreme Court on Tuesday began hearing on whether prohibiting the entry of women in Kerala's Sabarimala temple on grounds of biological factors was discriminatory and violative of the constitution.

Article 14 guarantees the right to equality, Article 15 prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, and Article 17 abolishes untouchability and forbids its practice.

The constitution bench comprising of Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman, Justice A.M. Khanwilkar, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice Indu Malhotra will address four questions framed by a three judge bench while referring the matter to a five judge constitution bench on October 13, 2017.

The petitioner -- the Indian Young Lawyers Association -- has challenged the 800-year-old practice of prohibiting the entry of women into the famed Lord Ayyappan Temple.

The PIL has sought direction to the Kerala government, the Travancore Devaswom Board, Chief Thanthri (priest) of Sabarimala Temple and the District Magistrate of Pathanamthitta to ensure entry of female devotees between the age group of 10-50.

Appearing for the petitioner, counsel Ravi Prakash Gupta told the court the restrictions on the entry of women in Sabarimala temple is not the essence of their religious affairs as discrimination on the entry of women in the temple is "neither a ritual nor a ceremony associated with Hindu religion".

Gupta said: "Mere sight of a woman does not affect anybody's celibacy, if one has take oath of it, otherwise such oath has no meaning."

The constitution bench will examine whether the exclusion of women based on biological factors amounts to "discrimination" and 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.

In the coming days, the court will hear arguments focusing on whether excluding women (in the age group of 10-50 years) 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?"

Besides, the court will address the question whether "Ayyappa Temple has a denominational character" and if it was permissible for religious denomination managed by a statutory board and is funded by the Kerala and Tamil Nadu governments to indulge in practices "violating the constitutional principles/morality".

Another question to be addressed is 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 10-50 years.

If Rule 3 permitted the ban on the entry of women in Sabarimala temple, then would it not be foul of Articles 14 and 15(3), which says that nothing in the provision prohibiting discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth shall prevent the state "from making any special provision for women and children".

The constitution bench will also examine whether Rule 3(b) is ultra vires of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965, and if not, is it violative of the fundamental rights.

The court on Tuesday asked the petitioner and others to conclude their arguments on Wednesday.