The Supreme Court has agreed to consider 'faith vs rights' issues related to discrimination against women in various religions and religious places, including Kerala's Sabarimala Temple, in a potentially landmark hearing scheduled to start next week. A nine-judge Constitution bench, headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde, said today "we will frame the issues and on February 6 we will assemble and fix time slot for advocates to argue the case".
In November last year, while hearing petitions against the top court's 2018 Sabarimala verdict, a five-judge bench referred the matter to a larger bench and said the debate on the constitutional validity of religious practices pertaining to bar on entry of women and girls into places of worship was not limited to Sabarimala.
In their arguments today, senior advocates Fali Nariman, Kapil Sibal, Rajiv Dhavan and others said the bench could not have sent the case to this bench because the scope of review was extremely limited and the present bench could not go into the issue.
The smaller bench had set out seven questions of law to be examined, including the interplay between the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution and the extent to which courts can enquire into religious practices, and whether "essential religious practices" are legally protected.
However, the opposing side, represented by former Attorney General K Parasaran and others, said the Supreme Court was well within its rights to hear the larger issue and, in the last hearing everyone, had agreed to give suggestions.
The Chief Justice responded by saying: "We have certain questions put to us by the five-judge bench that referred this matter. The question referred to us is of balance of rights. The Sabarimala review case is not before us... we are not deciding Sabarimala. We are deciding the larger question".
Apart from the entry of women into Sabarimala - which the top court permitted in a 4:1 verdict in September 2018 - other issues which will be under scrutiny at next week's hearing are the entry of Muslim women into mosques, female genital mutilation in the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community and the barring of Parsi women - who are married to non-Parsi men - from the holy fireplace at an agiary or Fire Temple.