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Religious practices vs law


Religious practices vs law

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Some essential religious practices may be contrary to constitutional ethos and values.

Religious practices and rights versus legal and Constitutional issues:

Freedom of Religion vs. Constitutional Governance:

  • Individuals have the right to practise their religion freely, as guaranteed under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which includes rituals, ceremonies, and modes of worship. The same article imposes limits on religious practices to ensure they do not violate public order, health, morality, or other fundamental rights of individuals.

Essential Religious Practices Doctrine:

  • Certain practices are deemed essential to a religion based on doctrines and beliefs of that religion. These practices are protected under Article 25. Shri Shirur Mutt Case, 1954 held that the term ‘religion’ will include those rituals that are integral to a particular religion.

Judicial Scrutiny and Intervention:

  • Judicial scrutiny determines whether a religious practice is integral to a religion or merely superstitious, arbitrary, or detrimental to public interest. Courts intervene to uphold constitutional principles, ensuring that religious practices do not infringe upon the rights of individuals or conflict with constitutional morality. In 2017, the Supreme Court of India upheld the right of Sikh individuals to wear turbans in workplaces considering it a right under article 25.

Public Order and Morality:

  • Practices that disrupt public order, promote discrimination, or pose health hazards may face legal challenges. The state has the authority to regulate or restrict religious practices that undermine public order, morality, or health, even if they are considered religious by certain groups.In 2019, the Indian Parliament enacted a law (Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act) to criminalise Triple Talaq, overriding a Supreme Court ruling that declared it unconstitutional balancing religious practices with gender equality and constitutional morality.

Right to Privacy and Human Dignity:

  • Individuals have rights to privacy and dignity in practising their religious beliefs, protected under Article 21 of the Constitution. Courts balance these rights with societal norms and public interest, especially in cases where religious practices might conflict with modern standards of human rights and dignity.Article 25(2) of the Constitution gives the power to the state to make laws with respect to regulation of economic, political, and other activities related to religion.

Equality and Non-Discrimination:

  • Practices that discriminate based on caste, gender, or other criteria are subject to legal scrutiny under anti-discrimination laws. The Constitution guarantees equality before the law (Article 14) and prohibits discrimination (Article 15), which may override religious practices that perpetuate social inequalities.

Issues arising from religious freedom in India:

Conflict between Religious Practices and Gender Equality:

  • Many religious practices and customs discriminate against women or restrict their participation based on traditional beliefs. The Sabarimala Temple case where restrictions on women of menstruating age entering the temple were challenged on grounds of gender equality is one such example.

Public Order and Religious Practices:

  • Some religious practices or rituals can lead to public disorder, social unrest, or law and order issues. Controversies over religious processions or festivals that involve loudspeakers or animal sacrifices, which sometimes lead to communal tensions or legal challenges due to noise pollution or animal welfare concerns.

Interfaith Marriages and Personal Freedom:

  • Social and legal challenges faced by individuals opting for interfaith marriages due to societal norms or opposition from religious institutions.
  • Hadiya, a Hindu woman from Kerala, converted to Islam and married a Muslim man in 2016. Legal battle was fought against this marriage by parents and the Supreme Court declared the marriage as legal.
  • Caste-Based Discrimination and Religious Practices:
    • Certain religious practices perpetuate caste-based discrimination, denying equal rights and opportunities to Dalits and lower castes.
    • The religious practice of angapradakshinam (the practice involving Dalits and non-Brahmins rolling over on left-over plantain leaves )is often considered a caste discrimination under Articles 15 and 17 of the Constitution.
  • Secularism vs. Religious Dominance:
    • Debates over state funding or support for religious institutions, government interference in religious matters, or the influence of religious leaders on policy making, highlighting tensions between secular governance and religious autonomy in India.

The Essential Religious Practices Test and cases associated with it

This test emerged from various judicial pronouncements where courts examine whether a religious practice is essential to the religion itself. The Supreme Court of India has developed this test to determine whether certain practices deserve constitutional protection under Article 25.

Shirur Mutt Case (1954):

In this landmark case, the Supreme Court held that what constitutes the essential part of a religion is primarily to be ascertained with reference to the doctrines of that religion itself. The Court acknowledged that practices integral to a religion are protected under Article 25.

Durgah Committee, Ajmer Case (1961):

The Supreme Court clarified that while Article 25 protects essential religious practices, it does not extend to practices that are superstitious, irrational, or extraneous to the religion itself. This case emphasized the distinction between integral practices and those based on mere superstition.

Sabarimala Temple Case (2018):

The Supreme Court's judgment allowing women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala Temple overturned a traditional practice that restricted the entry of women of menstruating age. The Court applied the essential practices doctrine to evaluate the validity of the restriction in light of gender equality principles and constitutional morality.

Personal Laws (Shariat) Application Act, 1937:

This Act applies Sharia law to Muslims in India in matters relating to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and other personal matters. It illustrates how religious practices are accommodated within the legal framework while being subject to constitutional principles.

The Right to Privacy Judgment (2017):

While not specifically about religious practices, the Supreme Court's landmark judgment on the right to privacy reaffirmed individual autonomy and personal choices, including decisions related to religious beliefs and practices. It reinforces the broader principles underpinning the doctrine of essentiality.

Way ahead:

  • Promotion of Interfaith Dialogue and Understanding:
    • Encourage initiatives that facilitate dialogue and understanding between different religious communities to promote mutual respect and tolerance. The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) for instance promotes interfaith dialogue globally to reduce tensions and foster peaceful coexistence among different religious groups.
  • Education on Religious Pluralism and Human Rights:
    • Integrate education on religious pluralism, human rights, and constitutional principles into school curricula to cultivate a culture of respect and understanding from a young age. The Council of Europe's "Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education" (EDC/HRE) framework emphasises teaching tolerance and respect for diversity in schools across Europe.
  • Legal Reforms to Strengthen Constitutional Safeguards:
    • Implement legal reforms to strengthen protections for religious minorities and ensure that constitutional guarantees of religious freedom are upheld consistently. Amending SC and SC Act, making laws in religious vigilantism, etc can be some way ahead.
  • Empowerment of Civil Society and Religious Leaders:
    • Support initiatives that empower civil society organizations and religious leaders to promote tolerance, address discrimination, and advocate for religious freedom. For Example: The International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) engages religious leaders globally in conflict resolution and peacebuilding efforts.
  • International Collaboration and Best Practice Sharing:
    • There is a need for international collaboration and exchange of best practices on religious freedom issues to learn from successful approaches in different countries.


  • The issue of balancing religious freedom with constitutional values in India is complex and multifaceted, requiring nuanced considerations and robust legal frameworks.

Important article for reference:






Q) Critically examine the challenges in balancing religious freedom with legal provisions in the context of recent judicial pronouncements in India. Discuss the implications for social harmony and constitutional values. (250 words)