The Supreme Court on Wednesday extended every citizen’s fundamental right to freedom of religion to include the said religion’s core practices. But it added that the said practices should not violate the constitutional guarantee of equality before law.
A bench headed by justice Ranjan Gogoi upheld a Hindu temple’s right to appoint priests on the basis of individual traditionally codified practices but underlined that inclusion or exclusion as per the religious code should not be based on the criteria of caste, birth or any other constitutionally unacceptable parameter. This would mean that there should be no discrimination while appointing priests.
“While the right to freedom of religion and to manage the religious affairs of any denomination is undoubtedly a fundamental right, the same is subject to public order, morality and health and further that the inclusion of such rights in Part III of the Constitution will not prevent the State from acting in an appropriate manner, in the larger public interest,” said the bench.
It added that “if the Agamas (code) in question do not proscribe any group of citizens from being appointed as Archakas (priest) on the basis of caste or class the sanctity of Article 17 or any other provision of Part III of the Constitution or even the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 will not be violated”.
While refusing to strike down a Tamil Nadu government order of May 23, 2006 that had allowed any qualified and trained Hindu to be appointed as priest in temples in the state, the SC struck a balance by saying that individual appointments should simply not be based on biases such as caste and creed.
It added that whether the religious code was violative of the Constitution would be subject to determination by a court on a case-by-case basis. This could open a floodgate of litigation from individual temples.
The court dismissed the plea that the practice of giving priesthood the sanctum sanctorum of a particular temple was the same as the practice of untouchability.
The controversy dates back to 1959 with the enactment of the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act. The statute, through Section 55, had upheld the right of hereditary priesthood in Tamil Nadu temples.
But, the DMK government on May 23, 2006 issued a government order followed by an ordinance to introduce the provision that “any person who is a Hindu and possessing the requisite qualification and training can be appointed as an Archaka (priest) in Hindu temples”.