MUMBAI - Women have a fundamental right to enter temples, an Indian high court has said, possibly paving the way for an easing of gender restrictions at places of worship across the country.
The high court in Mumbai said government authorities should ensure that women are not prevented from entering any Hindu place of worship across the state of Maharashtra.
"Ultimately it is the fundamental right of a woman and the government's fundamental duty to protect their right," Chief Justice D. H. Waghela said, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency.
Some Hindu temples in India ban women from entering the inner sanctum, with Kerala's famous Sabarimala temple barring all female worshippers aged between 10 and 50 years.
The court's directive came Friday after an activist challenged the centuries-old ban on women entering the inner sanctum of Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra state's Ahmednagar district.
The Mumbai court said state authorities must implement a 1956 law on Hindu worship, which mandates that a person who prevents women from entering a temple can be imprisoned for six months.
In January, hundreds of women staged a protest march to the Shani temple, with their leader Trupti Desai calling the ban "a symbol of gender inequality" which could not be tolerated in the 21st century.
Women have also been prevented from entering Mumbai's Haji Ali Dargah mausoleum since 2011, with its trust saying close female proximity to the tomb of a revered saint is "a grievous sin" in Islam.
Buoyed by the high court's latest remarks, Desai said her group would now take the fight to other temples where such restrictions exist.
"We will also meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and urge him to enact a law to put an end to such restrictions on worshipping," Desai told PTI.
Around 80 percent of India's 1.2 billion population is Hindu, but the country is also home to large numbers of Muslims, Christians and Buddhists.