By Michael Swain, Executive Director of Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA)
As you may be aware, FOR SA is representing a constituency of +/- 18,5 million people from a cross–spectrum of the religious community of South Africa as we engage with Government regarding what we see as the inequity and unfairness of their preferred treatment of other sectors of our society compared to the religious community. Since the purpose of restrictions on basic constitutional freedoms is supposed to help slow the inevitable spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, then applying a double standard is deadly. Either there is a threat – or there isn’t.
As a preface, it is important to note that FOR SA is NOT saying that churches, mosques, synagogues and temples MUST re-open. Although limited religious gatherings of no more than 50 people are permitted under the Level 3 regulations, many religious organisations have chosen not to re-open their venues and corporate activities at this time. Those who have re-opened are complying with (and bearing the cost of) all the administrative and practical measures required by the regulations and directions to make their places of worship as safe and risk-free as possible. It is the prerogative of every religious organisation to decide this matter for themselves.
However, FOR SA contends that there is no precedent to suggest that Government may discriminate against religion simply because a religious organization does not generate the economic benefits that a restaurant, casino, or the taxi industry might provide. To say otherwise suggests an implicit judgment by Government that for-profit assemblies are more important than religious gatherings and that moneymaking is more important than faith during a pandemic. This alone unfairly discriminates against religion.
To present these views, on Tuesday last week the FOR SA team (supported by three major religious organisations who are broadly representative of our constituency) met with Minister Dlamini-Zuma (Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs) and (among others) her two Deputy Ministers (Honourable Obed Bapela and Parks Tau), two Director Generals from her department (Mr Diphofa and Ms Williamson) and Prof. David Mosoma (Chair of the CRL Rights Commission).
FOR SA’s presentation
Having thanked the Minister for initiating the meeting in response to our various requests for engagement, we reiterated vital work and function of the religious community who live, work and serve amongst the very people whose lives and livelihoods are directly and severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. We emphasised that the religious leaders and organisations we represent want to ‘save lives’ – and will cooperate with Government as far as possible to prevent the unnecessary spreading of the virus to our people and communities.
While recognising that Government is attempting to balance “lives and livelihoods”, we pointed out the fact that religion and belief are very much part and parcel of this equation. People’s faith gives meaning and purpose to their lives and helps them to make sense of difficult and painful times such as these. As such, people’s religion and belief (including their corporate exercise thereof) cannot be separated from, or in any way be regarded as of secondary importance to, their lives and livelihoods.
We provided Government with a “temperature check” to reflect a growing concern expressed by some sectors of the religious community. While there was full agreement in the initial stages of the pandemic that the religious sector should forego its constitutional rights to corporate worship and similar activities, there is a theological imperative to meet, pray and sing together, to administer the sacraments and to profess, teach and preach publicly our respective faiths. It is, therefore, impossible for many people of faith to accept that the activities of religious institutions can be indefinitely ignored, defined, suspended or curtailed by the State. We hoped that this perspective would assist Government in its balancing of “lives and livelihoods” – bearing in mind that such “balancing” decisions ultimately need be guided by section 36 of the Constitution as soon as constitutional rights are affected.
Inequitable and unfair treatment in comparison to other sectors
Nevertheless, at our meeting with the Minister, FOR SA again highlighted the various areas of concern where it is evident that there is a need for clarification and/or where it appears that the religious community is being treated inequitably, unreasonably and unfairly by contrast with other sectors of South African society. We appealed to Government for a further relaxation of the (stringent) requirements on religious gatherings so that religious organisations have the opportunity to better meet our people’s real and deep need for spiritual direction and encouragement in this tumultuous time. We pointed out that this need only increases as infections (whether contracted at work, in a shop or a taxi) take their toll. We suggested that this incremental re-opening should reflect the following parameters for other sectors of society, already permitted by Government:
- Similar to casinos, to occupy up to 50% of their floor space (while still observing all health, sanitisation and social distancing protocols as per the directions for religious gatherings);
- Similar to conference venues, to occupy multiple venues on the same premises (each with the permissible number of people / floor space occupancy, and with all health, sanitisation and social distancing protocols observed); and
- Similar to car parks outside shopping centres or casinos, to permit drive-in religious gatherings with vehicles parked 2 metres apart from each other and people remaining inside their vehicles.
We further asked the Minister to address the previous and outstanding matters raised at our meeting with the COGTA Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on 24 June and raised in our various correspondence to the Minister, including our letter dated 17 July 2020:
- The issue of religious leaders’ status as “essential workers”;
- The definition of “places of worship”;
- The definition of “religious gatherings”; and
- Children’s church.
The Minister’s response
The Minister was of the view that the religious community has already been given a significant concession in being permitted to hold meetings of less than 50 people. She said that Government’s priority is re-opening the economy because many people’s economic livelihoods are severely affected. Following the remarks by Professor Mosoma, she further stated that Government does not know who the religious leaders are and asked the CRL to proceed to compile a register. She concluded by saying that she was not in a position to give any response to our requests during the meeting because this would involve a consultative process, not only with other Government structures but also with other organisations and faith groups representative of the religious community. However, she did confirm that FOR SA has now been included on the list of stakeholders consulted by the Office of the Presidency on religious matters, will be invited to all future meetings in this regard.
FOR SA has subsequently written to the Minister to reiterate the concerns expressed, which she again assured us would be taken back to Cabinet for consideration. We will continue to follow up on these matters and to watch and listen carefully as developments unfold.
Thank you for your interest in this matter – and for your continued support for the work of FOR SA.
Executive Director, FOR SA
In closing, FOR SA wants to take this opportunity to thank you sincerely for your support in these important matters. We know that we have only achieved the breakthroughs for the religious community as a result of your backing, for which we are most grateful. Please rest assured that we (and the exceptionally gifted team of lawyers and advocates who are assisting us) will continue to work diligently to ensure that all our religious freedom rights are fully restored at the earliest opportunity, while obviously respecting the very real threat to life which the current pandemic poses.
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:
- Making a financial contribution to FOR SA at https://forsa.org.za/donate/ 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 Gospel free by advocating for religious freedom. We appreciate every gift, big or small!
- Signing up (at no cost) to FOR SA at https://forsa.org.za/contact-us/join-us/ and subscribing to our Newsletter.
- Praying for us as we defend this precious freedom before government and courts of law.
- 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.