By Michael Swain – Executive Director of FOR SA
Many people think that freedom of religion means that they are entitled to hold a specific interpretation or doctrinal position and no one is entitled to discriminate against them in any way for holding this particular belief. While this is correct, it certainly does not cover the whole ambit of the right to freedom of religion. Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) is at the forefront of defending this crucial right to ensure that people remain entitled to think, teach, preach and live out their beliefs without fear of interference, or punishment, by the State or any other person or institution. It is therefore vital that the Christian Church in particular (to whom almost 80% of the population claim to belong) unite together under this banner, regardless of their own particular doctrinal preferences, because freedom of religion is by definition doctrinally neutral.
The role of women in ministry is a useful example to illustrate this point. Although some denominations and churches believe that women can (and should) function in the highest tiers of leadership, others sincerely believe that some roles in the church are reserved for men. From a freedom of religion perspective, both views are equally valid and it is not an issue of whose interpretation or position is right and whose is wrong. Whatever denominations or individual Christians choose to believe concerning this (or any other doctrine where the interpretation of Scripture is required), is equally valid. The issue is that everyone must be free to believe and act upon their sincerely held convictions, understanding and interpretation of the Scriptures and that the State has no business in dictating at any level what is (or is not) acceptable in terms of personal belief or faith. FOR SA exists to vigorously defend this essential right to freedom of conscience and belief when challenged.
A recent case illustrated that there is some confusion on this matter. A particular church took the decision not to support the work of FOR SA because they read a report where FOR SA had successfully opposed the State passing the Women’s Equality and Gender Empowerment (WEGE) Bill. This law would have obligated every religious organisation (incl. churches) to have at least 50% of women represented in their senior leadership and decision making structures, with significant fines and potential prison sentences being applied for non-compliance. The church that declined to support FOR SA is strongly in favour of women being represented at all levels of ministry and eldership positions in the church, so they would probably have been unaffected by the proposed legislation. They mistakenly took the view that because FOR SA had opposed certain aspects of this legislation, it was aligned with a more conservative doctrinal position. However, FOR SA neither holds nor endorses a position or preference on this or any other matter because freedom of religion is doctrinally non-partisan.
We live in country that is governed by a Constitution and which recognises that we live in a pluralistic society where all faiths are guaranteed freedom of religion and conscience. While FOR SA’s primary role and objective is to protect and preserve this right so that the Church is free to preach the Gospel, we also recognise that other faiths can suffer from encroachments to freedom of religion and these too need to be safeguarded lest an adverse precedent be set that may negatively affect our freedom as Christians. For example, in a recent case MEC for Education: Kwazulu-Natal and Others v Pillay, the school’s position was that the wearing of a nose stud was forbidden by their dress code, whereas the Plaintiff argued that the stud was not simply jewellery but an important expression of her culture and her Hindu faith. FOR SA was not involved in this case, but if we were, we would certainly have supported Miss Pillay’s position. The Constitutional Court also found in her favour and upheld her right to wear this item as a sincere expression of her faith. This case has set a valuable precedent which would almost certainly allow – for example – a Christian school girl to wear a discreet crucifix or a “promise ring” as an expression of her faith.
Freedom of religion is a right that we must unite to defend or we face the danger of seeing it eroded to the point where it has little or no value. The truth is that if the State can take away my freedom in one area today, they can take your freedom in another tomorrow. Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) was a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent seven years in concentration camps for condemning unequivocally Nazi interference in religious matters. However, he is best remembered for a quote that laments the dangers of allowing self-interest to erode the unity that could potentially have withstood the State’s intention to over-reach its authority:
“When they came for the communists,
I did not speak out;
As I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I did not speak out;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
As I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I did not speak out;
As I was not a Jew
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.”
The Bible is clear that a house divided against itself cannot stand, but a blessing is promised wherever the Church stands together in unity. Within the Church there may be differences in doctrine that can separate one denomination from another. However, every denomination and church should surely be able to unite around the understanding that whatever we chose to believe, preach/teach and practice, is a right that must be protected. FOR SA exists to defend any encroachment by the State or any group or individual that may undermine this essential and foundational human right.
We urge and encourage every church and denomination to rally to this cause and to support the work of FOR SA in outworking this mission and mandate by clicking the “Join Us” link and completing the online form.
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 join this struggle and help FOR SA protect our freedom by
- Praying for us as we defend this precious freedom before government and courts of law;
- Signing up (at no cost) to FOR SA, and subscribing to our Newsletter, at www.forsa.org.za;
- Following us, and sharing our posts, on Facebook at “Freedom of Religion SA”;
- Informing us, should you become aware of any case in which religious freedom is threatened;
- Making a financial contribution to FOR SA
As a non-profit organisation, we are entirely dependent upon God’s grace for finances. Your generosity will help make a significant difference as we work to fulfil our mission to keep the doors open for the Gospel by advocating for religious freedom. We appreciate every gift, big or small!