Sabarimala Temple: India's Supreme Court lifts ban on women entering shrine

Hindu devotees pray at the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, south India.

New Delhi (CNN)Women of all ages will be allowed to enter India's Sabarimala Temple, one of Hinduism's holiest sites, after the country's Supreme Court overturned a centuries-old ban Friday, the latest in a succession of progressive judgments to come out of the top court in recent weeks.

A five-judge bench struck down the religious ban on women aged 10 to 50 from entering the temple in southern Kerala state, ruling it to be discriminatory and arguing that women should be able to pray at the place of their choice.
"It is constitutional morality that is supreme. Prohibition can't be regarded as an essential component of religion," said the judges' ruling.
    The golden-roofed temple, which is thought to be more than 800 years old, is considered the spiritual home of Lord Ayyappa, a Hindu god of growth.
      Nestled atop a steep mountain amid a lush green tiger reserve, it's the site of one of the world's largest annual pilgrimages, with millions of Hindu devotees making the journey each year.
      Sabarimala had previously been off limits to women of menstrual age on religious grounds, with proponents of the ban arguing that since Ayappa is considered celibate, allowing "impure" women into the shrine would be disrespectful. Others have maintained that women cannot complete the 41 days of penances, a condition required to undertake the pilgrimage.

      'Extremely radical'

        Responding to the judgment, the board responsible for managing the temple complex said it would abide by the Supreme Court ruling and would not file a counter case.
        "We are happy that all controversies related to Sabarimala are settled," said the Devaswom Board in a statement.
        "Since women who believe in Lord Ayyappa will be coming, we have no choice but to welcome them."
        The Devaswom Board had previously upheld the ban by citing Article 26 of the Constitution, which guarantees a religious denomination the right to manage its own internal religious affairs.
        In its judgment Friday, the Supreme Court overturned that defense, ruling that devotees of Lord Ayappa did not constitute a separate religious denomination.
        Kaleeswaram Raj, a Supreme Court lawyer based in Kerala, described the judgment, in which four of five judges voted to overturn the ban, as "extremely radical and libertarian."
        "The fundamental point involved was whether the question of liberty and equality is dependent on individual religious practices or whether these practices can have a say over the constitutional right of an individual," said Raj, who was not involved in the case directly.