Who can visit a public place of worship and who can be excluded? Now this becomes a matter of legal debate in the Sabarimala Temple case. One of the key questions of law is whether the Sabarimala Temple can be considered as a ‘religious’ denomination of its own, when it is managed by a statutory board and financed as per Article 290-A of Constitution of India. Now, for those who are not familiar with the term ‘religious denomination’ and its implication in a case like this, let’s simplify it. First, keep in mind an easy-to-understand example of a religious denomination i.e. Swami Dayananda Saraswati created a new religious denomination, known as the Arya Samaj. However, in another case, the apex court had rejected the argument that Sri Aurobindo had created a new religious denomination.
What is a religious denomination?
In SP Mittal vs Union of India & Others [SCR (1) 729], the Constitution Bench through 1-4 delivered by Justice RB Misra had refused to accept Sri Aurobindo as a ‘religious denomination’ and held (see page 774 of the said judgment) as follows:
“Religious denomination means a religious sect or body having common faith and organisation and designated by a distinctive name.”
Another well-known case relates to the Swaminarayan Sect where the court rejected the claim of the sect of ‘Sathsangis’ to be considered as a separate religion merely on the ground of differences observed in Hindu temples.
As you can understand from some of the cases mentioned above, a religious entity cannot claim to have a ‘denomination’ simply on account of differences from the mainstream practice.
Characteristics of a Religious Denomination
So, lets understand what are the characteristics of a ‘religious denomination’? One of the key factors is a sense of ‘exclusive belongingness’, as the first abiding principle for a religious denomination to exist.
What makes it difficult to prove that Sabarimala Temple is a ‘religious denomination’? Here are some notable legal points:
1. It has its own administration, not managed or controlled by an outside agency.
2. It is self-funded and not by any outside agency, especially State.
3. It has distinct practices with a distinct set of followers who are exclusively devoted to a said set of religious practices.
In the submission report to the apex court, the Amicus Curiae in the case states as follows:
“1. The test for determination of denominational status is three fold:
i) Common Faith
ii) Common organisation
iii) Designation by distinctive name
All three have to be established for confirming a denominational status.
2. Even assuming that Lord Ayyappa’s devotees constitute a denomination, the exclusion of women’s entry violates the rights conferred under Article 26 of the Constitution of India. The denomination’s right to manage its affairs in matters of religion are subject to Article 25(2)(b).”
In addition to the report cited above, it can also be further noted as follows:
1.The religious ceremonies at Sabarimala Temple are not distinct from any other Hindu temples.
2. No separate administration, Sabarimala Temple is regualted by the statutory board constituted under the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950.
3. It gets state funding under Article 290-A of the Constitution.
4. There is no particular follower of this temple except general Hindu followers who are visiting regularly.
Sabarimala Temple’s Character Explained in the Amicus Curiae’s Report
The Amicus Curiae’s report also points out that the Sabarimala Temple is a public temple and this is an important determinant in adjudicating the claim of women’s entry. The universal right of entry is not a permissive right that is dependent on temple authorities but it is, according to the report, a legal right in the truest sense of the expression.
Further, Section 3 of the Kerala Hindu Places Entry Act, 1965, makes it amply clear that all places of public worship are to be open to all sections and classes of Hindus of whatsoever section or class to worship, pray or perform. Meanwhile, Rule 3(B) adds that women are not allowed to enter a place of worship at ‘such time’ during which they were not by custom or usage allowed to enter the temple.
Wait a minute, what does ‘such time’ refer to?
Simply put, it means that a menstruating woman cannot enter temple premises while undergoing periods but this does not impose a complete prohibition on women, as in the case of Sabarimala Temple. This protects the aspect pertaining to custom and usage in respect to a temple’s norms, thereby making it clear that the exclusionary practice of keeping all menstruating women from entering the temple is not integral to Hinduism as part of its customs or usage.