Whether the Supreme Court should review its decision to end the ban on women between 10 and 50 entering Kerala's Sabarimala Temple will be taken up by a larger seven-judge bench. Reading out a majority verdict on Thursday, Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi said the question of whether women of all ages should be allowed into Sabarimala is part of a larger debate that includes issues like allowing Muslim and Parsi women to enter religious practice and female genital mutilation in the Dawoodi Bohra community.
"Fresh opportunities to be given to all parties," the Chief Justice said.
Restrictions on women in religious places was not limited to Sabarimala and was prevalent in other religions too, the court said.
More than 60 petitions were filed after the Supreme Court verdict in September last year sparked violent protests in Kerala.
"The endevour of the petitioners was to revive a debate on religion and faith," said Chief Justice Gogoi.
While the court did not put on hold its earlier order, opposition parties said a "stay" is implied and the Kerala government must enforce it. "The fact that this issue has been referred to higher bench means that the question is not decided.
"Sabarimala is an important temple. We expect the Kerala government to maintain law and order," Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said during a press conference.
"The state government must desist from taking young women into the temple," said Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala.
KK Shailaja, Health and Social Welfare Minister, said the government would follow legal advice.
A five-judge constitution bench headed by the Chief Justice had reserved its decision in February after hearing various petitioners, including those seeking re-consideration of the verdict.
Last year, the Supreme Court had, by a majority verdict of 4:1, ended the centuries-old ban on women and girls between 10 and 50 - or those of a menstrual age -- from entering the famous Ayyappa shrine, calling the religious practice "illegal and unconstitutional". The Supreme Court upheld the constitutional right of every individual to practice their faith.
But since then, hardly any woman below 50 have made it to the restricted areas of the temple amid massive protests by priests and rightwing activists, backed by political parties like the BJP and Congress. Only two women managed to defy the temple's ban, escorted by policemen, in January but they faced a huge backlash. One of the women had to be hospitalized after she was attacked at home allegedly by her mother-in-law and thrown out.
Kerala's Left-led government, which had taken conflicting stands on women's entry into the hilltop shrine, supported the verdict and urged the court to trash review petitions. A constitutional court should not worry about law and order problems and "social disturbances", the state government had said.
Those who favour preserving the restriction on women argue that the deity Lord Ayyappa is celibate or a ''Naishtika Brahmachari'' and the Supreme Court should have considered that.
During hearings, the shrine's priests denied any discrimination against any class of citizen based on caste, gender and religion. "The fundamental right to worship also includes the character of the deity and every devotee cannot question this character which also formed part of the essential religious practice there," the shrine's lawyer had said.
Some review petitions argued that the court cannot interfere in the "internal affair of a religious community which worships a particular deity in a particular manner".