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.
    "Excluding women doesn't stand the test of time and the Constitution, which is essentially secular, has prevailed."
    The ruling is likely to prove divisive among religious groups, however, with Hindu conservatives and local campaigners calling for a renewed legal challenge to overturn Friday's decision.
    "We will submit a review petition next week. That will give us more time to consider our arguments in a much more meaningful manner," said prominent Kerala activist Rahul Easwar.
    "We will hold prayer meetings, peaceful demonstrations, to consider what to do next. But we request everyone not to take law and order into their own hands."

    A decades long fight

    The judgment marks the culmination of a decades-long battle to overturn the ban on women accessing the temple.
    The ban was first challenged before the Kerala High Court in August 1991, with the high court ruling that only a priest could make the decision on allowing women access to the temple.
    In 2006, the Indian Young Lawyers Association filed a Public Interest Litigation before the Supreme Court, again challenging the custom on the grounds that it violated the constitutional right to equality under Article 14, and freedom of religion for female worshipers under Article 25.
    The Supreme Court began hearing the case in 2016, referring it to a Constitution Bench the following year.
    "Kerala has a history of radical reformations within the realm of religion. We have had so many social reformations such as against untouchability (related to caste). This is a kind of untouchability but indicated by gender," said Supreme Court lawyer Raj.
    "Equal rights were accepted by the public on the basis of political and religious education. Slowly people will accept the spirit of this verdict," added Raj.
      The case is the latest to result in a headline-grabbing judgment from Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra before he retires next month.
      On September 6, the Supreme Court struck down Section 377, a colonial-era law criminalizing consensual gay sex, while on Thursday, a 158-year-old adultery law was abolished after the Court declared it retrograde and discriminatory toward women.