Sabarimala Temple Entry
Indian Young Lawyers’ Association v State of Kerala
The Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the Sabarimala Temple's custom of prohibiting women in their 'menstruating years' from entering.
Petitioner: Indian Young Lawyers Association; Dr Laxmi Shastiri; Prerna Kumari; Alka Sharma; Sudha Pal
Lawyers: R. P. Gupta; Raju Ramachandran (Amicus Curiae); K. Ramamoorthy (Amicus Curiae);
Respondent: State of Kerala; Travancore Devaswom Board; Chief Tanthri of Sabarimala Temple; District Magistrate of Pathanamthitta; Nair Service Society; Akhil Bhartiya Ayyappa Seva Sangham; Ayyappa Seva Samithi; Ayyappa Pooja Samithi; Dharma Sanstha Seva Samajam; Akhil Bharatiya Malayalee Sangh; Sabarimala Ayyappa Seva Samajam; Kerala Kshetra Samarak Shana Samithi; Pandalam Kottaram Nirvahaka Sangham; Sabrimala Custom Protection Forum
Lawyers: Jaideep Gupta; Liz Mathew; Venugopal; V. Giri; Rakesh Dwivedi; K. Radhakrishnan
Intervenor: Nikita Azad (Arora); D. V. Ramana Reddy; K. K. Sabu; Kantaru Rajeevaru; Rekha Ratheethnam; Athma Divine Trust; Rahul Easwar; Chetna Conscience of Women
Lawyers: Indira Jaising; V.K. Biju
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.
Whether this practice violates Articles 14 and 15(3) of the Constitution by restricting entry on the grounds of sex?
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?
Whether the exclusionary practice based on a biological factor exclusive to the female gender amounts to ‘discrimination’ and violates Articles 14, 15 and 17?
Whether the Sabarimala Temple has a denominational character?
On September 28th 2018, a 4:1 majority held that the custom is unconstitutional. Justice Indu Malhotra dissented. Here are the four opinions:
- Chief Justice Misra (on behalf of himself and Khanwilkar J.)
- Justice Nariman
- Justice Chandrachud
- Justice Malhotra
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 prohibited 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 for female devotees.
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 exclusion 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 August 18th 2006, the Supreme Court issued notices to the parties. On March 7th 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 October 13th 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 September 28th 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 unconstitutional. Justice Indu Malhotra delivering a dissenting opinion observed 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.
More than 50 review petitions were subsequently filed by various organisations including the National Ayyappa Devotees (Women’s) Association, the Nair Service Society, & the All Kerala Brahmin’s Association. The review petitions will be disposed of after the Court first decides certain ovearching constitutional questions regarding the interplay between the fundamental rights to equality and freedom of religion.