Friday, December 18, 2015

India's Supreme Court Balances Religious Rights Against Social Reform

In Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam v. Government of Tamil Nadu, (India Sup. Ct., Dec. 16, 2015), the Supreme Court of India came down with a complicated holding on the constitutionality of an administrative order ("GO") adopted by the State of Tamil Nadu that attempts to eliminate the hereditary priesthood in Hindu temples.  It provides instead that "any person who is a Hindu and  possessing the requisite qualification and training" is eligible for appointment.  This was challenged by an association representing Hindu priests as well as by individual priests as infringing Constitutional rights of freedom of religion and of religious denominations to manage their own affairs.  India's First Post describes the Supreme Court's holding:
[T]he crucial purpose of the GO was to eliminate the monopoly of Brahmins as priests in the temples of Tamil Nadu. The idea was to open these positions to all suitable candidates from all castes who had obtained the appropriate training in the centres set up by the government.
The petitioners on the other hand contended that this GO went against the fundamental tenets of the Hindu religion, represented here by the agama shastras which prescribed how the rituals were to be carried out and who could be appointed as priests to Hindu temples. It was argued that following the agama shastras were “essential religious practices” protected under Article 26 of the Constitution which if deviated from on the basis of a GO, would amount to an invasion of the right of a denomination to carry out its religious practices.
[The Supreme Court] ... upheld the [GO] but with a rider that appointments made under it can be challenged on a case-by-case basis, as being contrary to the agama sastras or customs. But crucially, the agama sastras or customs may themselves be subject to scrutiny by the court to see if they are contrary to the provisions of the Constitution of India. The court has thus tried to strike a balance between two very contradictory impulses in our polity: The right to practice one’s religion and the social reform of religious practices.