Erosion of religious freedom rights: International and local trends

by Michael Swain
3 June 2022

FOR SA was founded in 2014, after the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) told a local Cape Town church to stop teaching certain Bible Scriptures and to send its pastoral staff for sensitivity training.  Since then, there have been multiple situations – both here in South Africa and internationally – where State institutions have flexed their muscles, limiting people’s right to express and manifest their faith freely by speaking and living it out in public. Many of these scenarios originate internationally and are then implemented domestically, using laws and policies. This can be the result of activists adopting (and then driving) these ideologies, or through international agreements which South Africa has ratified, or by funding which the Government has accepted for a specific purpose.

Parental rights:

The right of parents to raise their own children according to their own beliefs, opinions and values remains a hot button issue. The Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) development and promotion of ideologically biased content to teach Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) in public schools is an example of how international funding and “ideology adoption” has brought this issue into South Africa. This CSE content was developed in close collaboration with UNESCO, providing public schools with Scripted Lesson Plans (SLPs), developed in accordance with the revised UN International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education (ITGSE).  Of note is that a notorious abortion provider, the International Planned Parenthood Federation, was one of the main contributors to (and influencer of) the ITGSE content.  From a funding perspective, it was also revealed that USAID gave 25 million USD (approximately R400 million) to assist in the roll out of this programme into South African public schools.

Hate Speech:

Hate speech continues to make headlines internationally and is another area where FOR SA is frequently engaged – specifically making presentations and submissions on the Prevention of Hate Crime and Combatting of Hate Speech Bill to Parliament to ensure that the public teaching, preaching and discussion of bona fide religious viewpoints remains properly protected.  Internationally, the battle to shut down faith-based speech continues.  In a recent case in Finland,  the danger of such laws was demonstrated by the prosecution of a Member of Parliament and a Lutheran Bishop simply for quoting from the Bible.  Happily (and in a landmark case for religious freedom rights) they won their case.  In another on-going case in the UK, a 76-year-old grandmother is facing a fine after she was arrested for praying silently outside an English abortion facility.  In this nation, which was once recognised as the bastion of the Christian faith, a point has been reached where criminal sanctions are enforced for peacefully manifesting this faith in public.

Sexual orientation and gender identity in schools

Another area where an imported ideological bias undergirds policy is seen in the development of laws to govern sexual orientation and gender identity. The Scottish Government’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill proposes allowing people as young as 16 years old to change their sex within six months of a self-declaration. Parents and other organisations have expressed concerns that this law will allow schools to impose gender-neutral toilets upon students, putting girls as young as twelve at risk of sexual assault and sexual coercion as a result of having to share facilities with 17 and 18-year-old males. In South Africa, the Western Cape Education Department has been developing guidelines on this issue in public schools.  There is understandable and widespread concern that these guidelines will accept controversial, unscientific and experimental ideologies, especially in their promotion of transgenderism.

The dangers of conversion therapy laws

Another critical area where the battle lines are shifting is seen in the trend of global legislation to outlaw so-called “conversion therapy”.  The problem is that “conversion therapy” is widely defined and in Australia it includes prayer, scripture reading, fasting, retreats, “spiritual healing” etc. As an example, in Victoria State you could go to jail for up to 10 years if found breaking their conversion therapy laws.  Even though a person may be a willing participant (i.e. they are the one who requests prayer, or asks what the Bible has to say about things such as gender), their willingness does not change the unlawfulness of these practices (i.e. praying for them or reading Bible passages).  Clearly these laws are aimed squarely at preventing any form of traditional faith-based teaching or dissemination of counsel and information to help people who may be struggling in these important areas.  We should therefore take note that on 5 July 2021, a notice of intention to introduce a bill was published of a potential “private members Bill” which would address exactly this topic, albeit in relation to minors (i.e. anyone under 18 years).

It is so important that we stay alert and be informed on these (and other) key battlegrounds in the fight for faith and freedom.  FOR SA is committed to remain on the frontlines, but your financial support for us is vital to enable us to continue to be a watchman and to stand in the gap.  

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Michael Swain

Michael Swain has been a successful businessman and also spent over 30 years in Christian ministry. He serves as FOR SA’s Executive Director and its (primary) media spokesperson. See full bio here.

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