Essential religious practices refer to significant customs and rituals that are integral to a religion and must be observed by its followers. The doctrine of essentiality (DoE) is a legal principle formula ted by the Supreme Court to determine which religious practices qualify as essential and receive protection under Article 25 of the Constitution.
The origin of the DoE can be traced back to the Shirur Mutt case in 1954, wherethe court established that the term ” encompasses all rituals and practices that are integral to a particular faith. The court assumed the responsibility of determining essential and non essential practices of religions. In various cases, the judiciary has utilized the DoE to safeguard fundamental rights such as the right to equality (Article 14) and the right to life with dignity (Article 21).
Recent examples demonstrate how the doctrine of essentiality has been employed by the judiciary to address conflicts between fundamenta l
1. The Triple Talaq case (2017): The Supreme Court protected the right to live with dignity and personal liberty by declaring that triple talaq does not constitute an essential religious practice.
2. The Sabarimala Case (2018): The Supreme Court deemed the exclusion of women of menstrual age from the Sabarimala temple as unconstitutional and non-essential. The court upheld the right to equality (Article 14), the right to a meaningful life (Article 21), and the freedom of religion subject to morality (Article 25).
3. The Karnataka High Court, in March 2022 (matter pending in the SC), held that wearing the Hijab is not an essential religious practice. The court ruled that schools have the discretion to prescribe uniforms as reasonable restrictions.
However , the doctrine of essentiality has faced criticism due to the following reasons:
The court’s role is to interpret laws and the constitution, not delve into religious affairs. Judges lack expertise in religious matters. Justice Indu Malhotra, in her dissenting note in the Sabarimala case, argued that the determination of what is religious should be left to the religious community.
Subjective matters related to religious practices should be decided by individuals themselves, as what may be essential to one person may not be to another. Judicial intervention in such matters limits individual autonomy.
The application of the doctrine may result in unpredictable and undesirable consequences, such as the denial of education to women from specific communities in the Hijab case or conflicts over offering namaz at public places following the Ismail Faruqui case in 1994.
The doctrine of essentiality fails to acknowledge the diversity within the same religion.
Despite these criticisms, the doctr Despite these criticisms, the doctrine of essentiality ine of essentiality has played a crucial role in upholding has played a crucial role in upholding constitutional morality constitutional morality while defining while defining the contested boundary between the secular and religious aspects of society the contested boundary between the secular and religious aspects of society and balancing religious rights and balancing religious rights with social reforms. with social reforms