Courts as Modern Civic Churches?

India is in the middle of an anachronistic power tussle. Watching The Tudors right when the Indian Supreme Court is hearing submissions in the Sabrimala case placed before me an interesting hypothesis – the King v Church tug of war is replicating itself, albeit democratically, in the controversy surrounding the Essential Practices Test.

First introduced in the Shirur Mutt case (1954 AIR 282), the doctrine provides for a test that would make state interference justified under a Constitution that gives to her citizens (Article 25), the freedom to practice and profess their religion, and to religious denominations (Article 26), the right to manage affairs and administer properties, both being subject to restrictions on public order, morality, and health. Essentially, the test gives the Court the power to determine what constitutes “essential to the practice of the religion” and holds that everything non-essential is subject to legislative action by the State.

A number of scholars (Gautam Bhatia, Shreya Atrey) have commented on the un/desirability of the consequences of such a test. The clearest of them all comes from Jacobsohn who characterizes the test as an attempt to internally reform the religion by allowing the judges to “re-characterize the religion in a more progressive light”.

What has given these objections much weight is the support Justice Chandrachud has lent to the skepticism of judicial discretion bestowed by the doctrine. He questions the ecclesiastical function of the court and proposes to use constitutional morality as the one stop test for determining the constitutionality of a religious practice, instead of going the long way of finding the non-essential elements that may be subjected to progressive restraints. This adherence to the constitutional word is consistent with the treatment of the constitution as the new-age charter of a civic religion, a notion oft repeated and celebrated in India.

King Henry VIII’s ostensible zeal for reform came out of his hatred for papal supremacy. Divine rights of the Kings placed the King directly under God, and God alone. He would then become the supreme mortal in terms of matters relating to governance and spirituality. The Indian courts do not wish to claim any such supremacy over spiritual matters (yet). What they seek to do is social reform – a venerable objective behind the framing of the Indian constitution. In that, they seek to be not just interpreters and guardians of the constitution, but active participants of change in realizing the aims of the constitution.

But one must question this insistence that in religion, like with the legislation, there is an umbra and a penumbra and that the latter is so hierarchy placed that it may be interfered upon, whereas the umbra is so essential that it may not be touched. What is religion but not faith? And what is faith but not a collection of beliefs organically coalesced to create charters that may look different for each generation? Is it not possible that a religion undergo change so as to value a tenet A over B within a span of decades? Is it also not possible that A and B exist simultaneously without harming the essentiality of each other, howsoever inconsistent they might seem to an educated rational mind? Since when has religion been the epitome of moral consistency?

Much can be said on the justifiability of this aspiration. Much more can be said of the legitimacy of the court’s position on such matters. Democratically speaking, ridding a society of its ills is more likely to give positive results if it comes from a joined political action rather than from a bench of judges who, in all their wisdom, are not privy to a large section of the society. Of course, the Indian supreme court has “grounded itself” (a phrased used by Dr. Rajeev Dhavan) and has acquired the kind of legitimacy that demands respectful obedience from its supporters. And this has been primarily because of the non-traditional use of judicial description for activism against a falling parliament often mired in political games to care much about the legal and policy lacunae deserving attention.

Sabrimala is an especially thorny issue, not just because the judges must conclusively decide the path the judiciary wishes to take with respect to social reform but also because they can either be the ecclesiastical court and inform the citizens of the immorality (grounded in the constitution, no doubt but then looking at the vastness of the Indian constitution, it can probably accommodate all moral philosophers barring Peter Singer) of their actions or they can let arguably unethical practices live, giving individual liberty the space that separation of church and state demands.

2 thoughts on “Courts as Modern Civic Churches?

    • I’m inclined to believe the court will allow women entry in the temple, placing non-discrimination above requirements of deference to religious practices. There is likely to be a plural judgement with the majority upholding the rights of women while diverging at the rationale. Justice Chandrachud will likely try to dilute the Test. Ideally, I wouldn’t want the Essential Practices Test to stay. The Court should not sit in judgement over what constitutes essential to a religion. There is enough in the Indian Constitution to subdue deeply immoral practices. (I don’t think law should guide morality but we live with what we get, so.) Sticking to the Constitution gives a set of definite norms which when violated make the religious practice unconstitutional. But the Test allows judges to transplant too much of their morality.

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