The CJI charted a new path in the Supreme Court’s voyage into the examination of legal interference in religious practice by constituting a nine judge bench to hear the case relating to Kerala’s Sabrimala Temple.
Setting down a basic question: To what extent can gender equality laws interfere in religious practices?
The bench will answer the question of menstruating women’s entry into the Sabrimala Temple along with 14 similar petitions of women’s entry into Mosques, Parsi Temples and other places of worship. The new bench – headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde – comprises of Justices R Banumathi, Ashok Bhushan, L Nageswara Rao, Mohan M Shantanagoudar, S Abdul Nazeer, R Subhash Reddy, BR Gavai and Surya Kant.
This a landmark order since it allows the constitution of a nine judge bench directly from a five judge bench. This is of importance since the new bench will be deciding the resolution between two conflicting judgements.
A seven-judge bench in Commissioner, Hindu Religious Endowments, Madras Vs Shri Lakshmindra Tirtha Swamiar of Shirur Mutt (Shirur Mutt case) held in 1954 that what are essential religious practices of a particular religious denomination should be left to be determined by the denomination itself.
However, the contrasting view of a five-judge bench in Durgah Committee, Ajmer Vs Syed Hussain Ali & Ors, in 1962 carved out a role for the court, stating a constitutional court may exclude what it determines to be “secular practices” or “superstitious beliefs” from being a part of essential religious practices which are immune from interference.The majority of the previous five judge bench held that these contrasting judgments needed to be settled by a larger bench and subsequently, the bench was constituted by the CJI in exercise of his powers under Order VI rule 1 of the Supreme Court Rules, 2013.
Supreme Court’s nine-judge bench, today said that it will only hear the questions referred in the review order passed by it on November 14 in the Sabarimala temple issue.
The SC had on November 14 asked a larger bench to re-examine various religious issues, including the entry of women into the Sabarimala Temple and mosques and the practice of female genital mutilation in the Dawoodi Bohra community.
While the five-judge bench unanimously agreed to refer religious issues to a larger bench, it gave a 3:2 split decision on petitions seeking a review of the apex court’s September 2018 decision allowing women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala.
A majority verdict by then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices A M Khanwilkar and Indu Malhotra decided to keep pending pleas seeking a review of its decision regarding entry of women into the shrine, and said restrictions on women in religious places was not restricted to Sabarimala alone and was prevalent in other religions as well.
The minority verdict by Justices R F Nariman and D Y Chandrachud gave a dissenting view by dismissing all review pleas and directing compliance of its September 28 decision.