New Delhi: Gender equality is a "constitutional message" and the ban on entry of women of a particular age group in the historic Sabarimala temple cannot be claimed as a right to manage religious affairs by its management, the Supreme Court said on Monday.
"Gender equality is a constitutional message and they (temple management) cannot say that this (banning women) comes under their right to manage religious affairs," a bench headed by Justice Dipak Misra said.
The bench, also comprising Justices V Gopala Gowda and Kurian Joseph, reiterated that it would test the "so-called" customary practice under the provisions of the Constitution.
At the outset, senior advocate Indira Jaising, appearing for NGO 'Happy to Bleed' which is seeking women's entry into the historic shrine in Kerala, said the law was meant for "removal of social ills" and constitutional principles would prevail over discriminatory customs and beliefs.
"The ban on entry of women cannot be said to be part of the right to manage a public religious places like temple," she said and referred to various judgements to buttress her arguments.
The right to enter a public temple is available to all Hindus irrespective of gender, she said, adding that any custom, belief or even law could be termed "void" if they do not conform to the constitutional principles.
During the hearing when Jaising started dealing with the aspect that the deity at Sabarimala is "celibate" and "brahmachari", the bench asked her not to get into it.
"They (Travancore Devaswom Board) rely on customs, tradition and philosophy and you rely on Constitution. Let us not get into the nature of deity...," the court said, adding it would examine whether any custom is protected by any law.
The court is hearing a PIL, filed by Indian Young Lawyers' Association (IYLA) seeking entry of women in the Sabarimala temple, located on a hill-top in the Western Ghat mountain ranges of Kerala's Pathanamthitta District.
Senior advocate Raju Ramachandran, who is assisting the court as an amicus curiae, said "the practice, which keeps women away and prevents them from worshipping the deity of the shrine because of their biology, is derogatory and detrimental to their dignity".
During the hearing, the bench, referring to the belief that the deity at Sabarimala is celibate, asked, "If the deity says I don't want to see you, why compel him? If he doesn't want to be pleased, why compel him to be pleased?".
"The deity saying so is the belief of the persons who are managing the shrine," Ramachandran said.
The hearing in the case would resume on 22 April.
Earlier, the apex court had said that denying women the right to enter and pray in the historic temple cannot be justified on the basis of traditions which violated constitutional principle.