2021 started with a bang and we have never stopped running! FOR SA’s phones rang off the hook the moment the President shut down all religious gatherings while leaving other similar meetings and activities open for business. Perhaps for the first time, the sleeping giant of the faith community of South Africa awakened to the reality that in today’s increasingly secular world, consideration of religious rights and freedoms by Government is frequently late and last. Since then, FOR SA has worked tirelessly to keep everyone informed of the rapidly shifting regulations while actively engaging with Government to appeal for fair treatment. Although we met with the President, with the Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (“COGTA”) Minister, the COGTA Department, and with Parliament’s COGTA Portfolio Committee, it soon became clear that litigation was the only viable option. We filed our case against Government in January, which was finally heard in the Johannesburg High Court from 22 to 24 November 2021. (Judgment has been reserved).
FOR SA is trusting that this will set a vital legal precedent and framework to ensure that Government can never again unfairly discriminate against the religious community by treating it differently from other, similar sectors of society. We are hoping that the Court will confirm the principles set out in the Constitution, including that Government may only limit our rights if they can demonstrate that such limitation is lawful, and is reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based upon human dignity, equality and freedom. We are seeking proof of the scientific data upon which Government claimed to rely in concluding that sitting sanitized and socially distanced in a religious gathering posed a greater risk of spreading COVID-19 than sitting side-by-side gambling in a casino. We are looking for confirmation that religious workers, who were on the front lines from the beginning of the pandemic helping to encourage, feed, counsel (and even bury) their congregants, are finally and formally recognized as essential workers.
Threats to religious freedom picked up pace as the year progressed. Discussion papers on the proposed Single Marriage Statute and the draft Marriage Policy were both opened for comment, raising concerns that religious marriage officers would potentially be forced to solemnise marriages contrary to their faith convictions and conscience. The Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (“PEPUDA”) Amendment Bill proposed sweeping changes to the legal framework of this nation that (unless changed) amount to the death knell of religious freedom. The so-called “Hate Speech Bill” – which for the first time in South African law, will make certain forms of offensive speech a criminal offence punishable by a fine or even jail time – was reopened for comments. FOR SA responded by assisting a broad cross-spectrum of the faith community to understand the issues and to engage in the democratic process. The results were outstanding, with tens of thousands of submissions made and (in the case of the PEPUDA Amendment Bill) a recognition by the Department that it needed to “look carefully” at the concerns raised. FOR SA was also engaged in front of Parliament with a number of other Bills that affected religious freedom – such as the Disaster Management Amendment Bill etc.
FOR SA has been engaged on multiple other fronts. We have been pressing the Minister of Basic Education to permit the use of schools for religious meetings. We have written to the Minister of Employment and Labour on the exclusion of churches and other religious organisations from TERS benefits. FOR SA’s definition of “spiritual abuse” has been successfully integrated into the Domestic Violence Amendment Bill which will soon be signed into law. We made written submissions and verbal presentations on the Expropriation Bill to protect property owned by religious organisations.
From a litigation point of view, we are intervening as amicus curiae in the isiphandla case (where the autonomy of independent faith-based schools is being challenged), being heard on 19 January 2022. We are also acting as amicus curiae in the Chetty case (where freedom of religious speech is being challenged), being heard on 17 – 18 February 2022. We have conducted over 200 radio, TV, online and print media interviews to highlight religious freedom issues and concerns, travelled extensively and staged roadshows and a webinar series. These are just the highlights of some of the issues, cases and laws we have been involved in. In short, wherever religious freedom has been challenged, FOR SA has stood in the gap on the front lines.
In closing, our sincere thanks to everyone who has stood alongside us and supported us in our work. Your prayers, participation and financial contributions have been (and remain) essential to enable us to continue to uphold, protect and promote our essential religious freedoms. We face a new year where we anticipate that the battle will become even fiercer – so we encourage you to take a moment to visit FOR SA’s Donate page and help to keep us in the front lines of the fight for faith and freedom!