by Daniela Ellerbeck
26 October 2020

By Michael Swain, Executive Director of Freedom of Religion South Africa

October 27th celebrates “International Religious Freedom Day”, poignantly memorialising the date when four Quakers were executed for their faith by hanging in Boston, Massachusetts in 1659.  Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) is joining the global recognition of the importance of these hard-won freedoms by staging its “Virtual Roadshow”, from 10:00 – 11:30 via Zoom.  As an organisation which exists to protect and promote our constitutional religious freedom rights, FOR SA’s free-of-charge Roadshow will highlight the global trend which is seeing these vital rights being systematically eroded because they are neither properly valued, protected nor understood.  Those interested in attending this important event should register today on the FOR SA website.

Freedom of religion rights are far broader than religion

Although often presented as an out-dated defence for narrow-minded bigots, religious freedom is a central issue of our time and its scope is far broader and fundamentally important because it is the cornerstone right of any democracy worthy of the name.  Arguably, it is the glue that holds us together in a “South Africa [which] belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity” and it is integral to democratic freedom because it includes a broader “basket of human rights”, including freedom of conscience, religion, belief, thought and opinion.  These protect not only our rights to believe in our hearts whatever we want to believe (or not believe), but also our rights to say what we believe and to live out our beliefs free from interference / punishment by the State or anyone else. Freedom of religion is a human right that belongs to every human being simply because they are human.

Freedom of religion is the “litmus test” of any democracy

Importantly, freedom of religion is not a right that is granted by any government, even though it is guaranteed by international, regional and national instruments – including the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights and the Constitutions of many countries.  It is rather the recognition of a right that precedes international and State law and is “self-evident” because it is derived from natural law (i.e. from “God, nature or reason”). The State, therefore, cannot simply remove or limit freedom of religion because it does not like or agree with certain religious convictions or beliefs which the current (even prevailing) culture finds “offensive” or “politically incorrect”.

Whatever our differences, we are unified in having the freedom to differ.  Democracy requires a diversity of views and choices, an environment in which differing opinions can be debated freely. Without religious freedom, this would be impossible because the “cultural majority” would use the power of the State to cram down and impose their beliefs on others. Freedom of religion therefore protects everyone — religious and non-religious alike — from the State (or interest groups within it) becoming so powerful that people can be told what to think and how to act.

Freedom of religion rights are under attack

Unfortunately, in this country, we have witnessed various examples where State institutions (especially the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC)), instead of upholding and protecting all rights in our Constitution, selectively chose to prioritise one right over all others and then to institute lawsuits against those holding to “politically incorrect” religious views. This is doubly unjust, because those finding themselves in the cross hairs are then obliged to defend and pay for their own legal costs, whereas these State institutions can litigate endlessly, using tax-payers money.  A case in point, which lead to the formation of FOR SA, involved an atheist couple who downloaded a parenting manual from a local church website. They then cherry-picked the page with the “spare the rod, spoil the child” Scriptures and reported the church to the SAHRC for teaching “child abuse”.  The SAHRC subsequently opened up a case against the church, demanding that they remove the “offending” Scriptures, never teach them again and also send their pastoral team for “sensitisation training”.

Another current example involves the Beloftebos case, where a Christian-owned and run wedding venue graciously declined to host a same-sex marriage.  Despite the fact that the Constitution’s “equality clause” (contained in section 9) protects the right not to be unfairly discriminated against because of one’s conscience, religion and belief to exactly the same extent that it protects the right not to be unfairly discriminated against because of one’s sexual orientation – and the Constitutional Court has stated clearly that there is no hierarchy of rights in our Constitution – the SAHRC has sided with a same-sex couple and filed a lawsuit against Beloftebos.

While the Beloftebos owners welcome everyone to their venue, regardless of race, creed or sexual orientation (and would therefore happily do a birthday party for someone in a same-sex relationship), they do not believe that they should be forced to be host events that go against their religious beliefs (such as Halloween parties, trance parties etc.)  Specifically, in this case, they do not believe they should be forced to violate their sincerely held belief that marriage is a union of a man and a woman and symbolizes the relationship between Christ (the Groom) and His Church (the Bride).    This case has been further complicated by a second lawsuit from another same-sex couple, who are demanding that Beloftebos pay R2 million in damages to a charity.  The stakes are growing ever higher.

Religious freedom rights need to be protected and promoted or they will be lost

Conscientious objection rights are also in serious danger following the President’s very recent assent to the Civil Union Amendment Bill. This amends the Civil Union Act, which was passed into law after the Constitutional Court ruled in the Fourie case that same-sex couples must enjoy the same rights under law as heterosexual couples. Justice Albie Sachs (a veteran of the Struggle years and a self-professed atheist) said that State-employed marriage officers, who may have conscientious objections to solemnising same-sex marriages, could have their rights reasonably accommodated by the State through a “conscientious objection clause”.  The “conscientious objection clause” in section 6 of the Civil Union Act reflected this view – but this has now been removed.  This amendment grants zero additional rights to same-sex couples.  Instead, it eliminates the religious freedom rights of State-employed marriage officers and ex officio magistrates to decline to solemnise, on the grounds of their sincerely held beliefs, a same-sex union.  It further sets a dangerous precedent whereby other conscientious objection rights are more likely to be trampled underfoot.

Perhaps the most critical test for any democracy today is whether it will give space to those who have different views – even if those views may cause offence.  There will always be those who want to silence people whose viewpoints they disagree with and to marginalise them; whose aim is to exclude religion from public life and to replace it with a bias in favour of non-religious world views. However, religious freedom is important, not only for those who call themselves believers in any faith but also for everyone who believes in protecting and preserving democracy. If we do not protect religious freedom, democracy will suffer and the people (religious and non-religious) will pay a heavy price.

Michael was raised in England, graduating from the University of Bristol with an honours degree in Law before immigrating to South Africa in 1983. He has been a successful businessman as well as having spent over 30 years in ministry in South Africa, Europe and the USA. He serves as the Executive Director of Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA).

Support FOR SA

Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) is dedicated to protecting and preserving the freedoms and rights that the South African Constitution has granted to the faith community. You can help FOR SA protect our freedom by: