The Supreme Court on Tuesday, hearing a plea seeking the entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50 into the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, said the Constitutional scheme prohibiting exclusion of women “has some value in a vibrant democracy”.

“First of all, we have to determine whether the devotees of Lord Ayyappa constituted a separate Ayyappan religious denomination,” the bench comprising Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, Justices RF Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra said, according to PTI. “The Indian Constitution has to have some value if it prevents exclusion. If the Constitution permits equal rights to citizens, then so be it.”

Lawyer Gopal Sankaranarayanan, appearing for intervenor Usha Nandini, said that people of all religions are allowed to enter the temple. “We have reduced this argument to women between age 10 and 50 and this is not a class but a restriction,” he said. The advocate claimed that the Ayyappa devotees, who observe 41 days of penance, constitute a separate religious denomination.

However, the court disagreed. “You can’t be a separate religious denomination only for the month when you visit Sabarimala,” the bench said. It added that the penance constituted a “ritual” and this may not be considered as a separate religious denomination.

Asked if women of the Scheduled Castes can be barred entry into the temple on the basis of “untouchability”, the lawyer said the temple does not exclude people on that basis. “Who are Hindus, does it not include women?” the court responded.

Sankaranarayanan said the actual reason women of menstruating age are not allowed is that the deity is celibate. “Lord Ayyappa is a juristic person who decides who can and cannot come to him,” he said.

The hearing will resume on Wednesday.