The Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms, and a Code of Conduct For Religion

by Daniela Ellerbeck
29 November 2017

By Prof Pieter Coertzen
Chairperson: Council for Religious Rights and Freedoms
& Prof Rassie Malherbe
Advisor to the Council for Religious Rights and Freedoms

The right to freedom of religion protected in the Constitution, is foundational to an open and democratic society in which people may safely pursue their convictions and practise their religion within the legal framework provided by the State. The various elements of religious freedom are explained more fully in the Charter for Religious Rights and Freedoms (see Charter in “MISCELLANEOUS” folder in – a document initiated by religious representatives and endorsed and supported by most religious groupings, communities and leaders in South Africa.

The South African Council for the Protection and Promotion of Religious Rights and Freedoms (the CRRF) which is the designated keeper and protector of the Charter, firmly believes that the recently exposed and deplorable abuses in certain religious communities should not be combatted by way of the regulation of religion by the State, as this would restrict religious freedom to an intolerable degree. Apart from strict and effective law enforcement whenever offences are committed, or other unlawful conduct occurs, we believe the proper approach would be for the religious communities of South Africa to bring their own house in order. The religious community desires to be a law-abiding and responsible segment of society exercising a healthy and constructive influence, and therefore we should act pro-actively before the State feels compelled to step in.

The Council for Religious Rights and Freedoms accordingly joins others in calling for the development by the religious sector of a Code of Conduct for religious communities and leaders in which we commit ourselves to the eradication of abuses and the promotion of responsible and commendable conduct in religion.

The Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms is based upon the assumption that every right has an implied and corresponding responsibility which is expected from the one enjoying the right. By enumerating and explaining the various elements of the right to religious freedom, the Charter by implication provides a useful account of responsibilities that could be included in a code of conduct for religious communities and leaders. A few examples of how the Charter can inform a Code of Conduct will suffice:

* The Charter is subject to and endorses the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. The duty flowing from this includes that religious communities or leaders shall refrain, for example, from any action violating the right to life or human dignity of their members, or from treating their members in a cruel or degrading way. Actions that amount to assault or to the gross violation of people’s human dignity, like spraying of pesticide, drinking of petrol, or sexually exploiting women, clearly cannot be justified under this duty.

* Where the Charter acknowledges the right of the individual to believe, what to believe or not to believe, and not to be forced, victimised or be discriminated against in this respect (Art 1), the corresponding duty would be to refrain from any action that denies these rights of their members, that forces conformity on members in an unreasonable way, that ridicules or victimises members who do not tow the line, or persecutes members desiring to leave the community.

* Where the Charter acknowledges the right of religious communities and leaders to receive money from their members or others for the functions of the religious community (Art 12), the corresponding duty would be to use the money responsibly for the purpose for which it was donated, to adhere to lawful accounting practices, keep their members informed through regular reports on the financial state of the body and with integrity to refrain from any form of personal enrichment.

We invite religious communities and leaders who have not done so yet, to endorse the Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms, and to join us as we cooperate with the religious sector in developing a Code of Conduct based on the responsibilities flowing from the rights and freedoms in the Charter.

Enquiries may be directed to Prof Pieter Coertzen, Chair of the Council for Religious Rights and Freedoms, telephone number 021-887 2619, email address [email protected].

Pieter Coertzen is a retired professor of Church History and Church Law. He continues researching religious freedom and is the Executive Chairperson of the SA Council of Religious Rights and Freedoms, as well as of the Unit for the Study of Law and Religion in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Stellenbosch. He also regularly teaches classes on Comparative Church Law at the Catholic University of Leuven, in Belgium.

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