by Michael Swain, Executive Director of FOR SA
The CRL Rights Commission’s recent proposals to regulate religion, as set out in its Report on the “Commercialisation” of Religion and Abuse of People’s Belief Systems, has raised an unprecedented level of concern in the faith community of South Africa. While the issues identified (which have further been sensationalized by the media) are a serious and valid cause for concern, the real question has zoned in on the most appropriate way to address them.
Let’s be clear from the start: freedom of religion means exactly that. The Constitutional Court has already ruled in Prince vs Cape Law Society (2002) that just because a belief may seem to be bizarre, illogical or irrational, that does not make it invalid. So if someone decides to start a religion that worships the man in the moon, and their ritual involves sitting outside once a month to howl and eat cheese, this is a valid expression of religious freedom. However, the moment someone straps one of the members to a rocket and lights the fuse, a line has been crossed and the State should intervene. Why? Because we have moved from freedom of religion into an area where there are good laws in place for good reasons.
In a recent case, the self-styled “Prophet of Doom”, Lethebo Rabalago of Mount Zion General Assembly in Limpopo, made the claim that faith somehow translates a tin of poisonous fluid designed to eradicate insects, into a substance capable of healing all manner of diseases. There is nothing wrong with believing that – but the problem came when he took the tin and sprayed it liberally into the face of his congregants. Here the line between freedom of faith, and the rule of (criminal) law, was clearly overstepped. Even if the person being sprayed was a willing participant, the action remains one which is potentially liable to criminal prosecution and the fact that consent has been given, doesn’t necessarily excuse the infliction of bodily harm. To give a more extreme example to illustrate this point, I may want to die and I may ask you to assist me, but the moment you pull the trigger you have committed a murder and the fact that I asked you to do so is not a defence in law.
From the outset of the CRL Commission’s investigation, Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) has said that the answer to evident abuses being perpetrated in the name of religion, lies in enforcing existing laws. In the recent case of the “Prophet of Doom”, FOR SA sent a letter to the CRL Rights Commission on behalf of over 100 major Christian denominations and church movements, repudiating the actions of this man and calling upon the State to intervene. (To view the Joint Statement, click here – https://forsa.org.za/churches-condemn-actions-of-prophet-of-doom/)
Fortunately, it appears that the State has now stepped up to the plate. This week, it was reported in the media that the Limpopo Health Department has obtained a court interdict ordering the “Prophet of Doom” and his church members to refrain from spraying or applying Doom on people. According to the court papers reportedly seen by The Sowetan, Rabalago has been ordered to appear before the court on 20 January 2017 to give reasons why the interim interdict should not be made final. FOR SA commends the Department for taking action in this instance and demonstrating that there are indeed existing solutions to the valid concerns highlighted by the CRL Commission in their report.
The real issue is therefore one of political will, since it is the responsibility of the State to enforce the law. While the Commission’s intentions may be good, it is highly debatable whether setting up an elaborate structure to regulate every aspect of religion, will in any event effectively prevent such abuses from occurring. What it will achieve, is a fundamental erosion of freedom of religion and a dangerous blending of the Church and State, which history has shown time and time again inevitably ends badly.
While FOR SA shares the Commission’s concerns regarding the abuses and unlawful activities taking place in the name of ‘faith’, and commend the Commission for wanting to do something about it, we do not believe that broad-scale regulation of religion is in fact the answer. We will continue to engage with the Commission, as we have been doing since the outset, to present viable alternative solutions to the very real problems identified in their Report.
The CRL Rights Commission’s Report, including their proposals for regulation, can be viewed here – https://forsa.org.za/document-library/. (Scroll down to “CRL Report on Commercialisation of Religion).
The deadline for comments on the Report is 28 February 2017, and can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org