Free to believe but not free to act!
In South Africa, as around the Western world, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Christians to live out their faith. Sure, you can have religious convictions and beliefs — as long as you don’t act on them!
This is the message of LGBTI activists to Christian business owners and, as a well-known evangelical church in Johannesburg recently learnt, now even to churches who rent out their facilities to the public.
According to the online news article wherein the story was first reported, the particular church advertised its conference and wedding facilities (including a traditional chapel) on a sign outside the church building. The sign was noticed by a man who thought that it would be the perfect spot to marry his same-sex partner. Scratching out “bride” and replacing it with “groom”, he completed an application form for the same-sex ceremony to be held in the chapel and submitted same to the church.
According to the online news article further, the church subsequently informed the man that they can unfortunately not make their chapel available for the wedding, as the church holds the view that same-sex marriage is not in accordance with the Christian faith. While the church hopes to welcome, help and extend hospitality to gay and lesbian people as to others, the church apparently stated that their adherence to Christian beliefs and practices also has to be respected.
The man reportedly responded to the church by pointing out that they were advertising wedding facilities, and that the couple would use their own pastor. In the news article, he elaborated thus: “It’s not just a church, it’s a service they are providing and they are discriminating against us.”
In other words, the church is free to believe what she believes – as long as she does not act on those beliefs.
The same argument used against Christian business owners in SA
The same argument (namely that in the commercial context religious beliefs are irrelevant and inappropriate) was made by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), acting as legal representatives for the (homosexual) complainant in the court case instituted against the Christian owners of a guest house in Wolseley, Western Cape in the Bellville Magistrate’s Court last year.
(This is the case where the complainant accused the Christian owners of unfairly discriminating against him and his same-sex partner when they refused, on grounds of religious conviction and belief, to make a single room in the guest house available to the couple. For the Christian owners, to do so, would be to effectively enable, or themselves participate in, an activity that they believe to be sinful according to the Bible and thus potentially place their own salvation at risk).
According to the SAHRC, “while the [Christian owners] are entitled to believe whatever they choose to believe, by virtue of the fact that they operate a business in terms of which they offer their services / accommodation to members of the public within the borders of the Republic of South Africa, they are subject to the laws of the country including the law which prohibits discrimination on inter alia the basis of sexual orientation” (my emphasis).
In other words, Christian business owners are free to believe what they believe – as long as they do not act on them.
The meaning and scope of religious freedom
This restricted view of religious freedom is certainly not what the fathers of our Constitution had in mind when they enshrined freedom of conscience, religion and belief as a basic human right (in section 15 of our Constitution).
As early as 1997, our Constitutional Court described “the essence of the concept of freedom of religion” as follows: “The right to entertain such religious beliefs as a person chooses, the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination.” (S v Lawrence)
In another decision by the Constitutional Court in 2000, the Honourable Justice Sachs (a self-confessed atheist himself), explained the importance of freedom of conscience, religion and belief in our country as follows: “Freedom of religion goes beyond protecting the inviolability of the individual conscience. For many believers, their relationship with God or creation is central to all their activities. It concerns their capacity to relate in an intensely meaningful fashion to their sense of themselves, their community and their universe. For millions in all walks of life, religion provides support and nurture and a framework for individual and social stability and growth. Religious belief has the capacity to awaken concepts of self-worth and human dignity which form the cornerstone of human rights. It affects the believer’s view of society and founds the distinction between right and wrong. It expresses itself in the affirmation and continuity of powerful traditions that frequently have an ancient character transcending historical epochs and national boundaries.” (Christian Education South Africa v Minister of Education)
Denying expression is to deny dignity
In principle therefore, the right to freedom of religion goes further than holding to a belief in private, but extends to giving expression thereto in the public (including the commercial) sphere. And to deny people the right to outwardly express what they inwardly believe, is to deny them self-worth and dignity as human beings.
It is unfortunate indeed that, in the escalating conflict between religious rights on the one hand and LGBTI rights on the other, the impact on the dignity of those who are forced to violate their conscience, religion and belief in the name of equality, is often overlooked or ignored even by the very commissions established by the Constitution to protect human rights – as if the dignity of some human beings is somehow less, or less deserving of protection, than other human beings.
Quite simply, what is the point of having freedom to believe if it does not also mean the freedom to act on what one believes? Without the latter, it is not freedom at all – it is oppression. As South Africans, we need little reminding of the cruel, unjust and dehumanizing effect that oppression can have on a people. It would be a sad day indeed if we were to join the list of countries where Christians, who are now the most oppressed group of people in the world, are persecuted, harassed, intimidated or restricted in the exercise of their faith.
In this context, we would do well to consider the Preamble to our Constitution that serves as a reminder of where we come from (a history of oppression and injustice), but more importantly, of where we are going (a democratic and open society where every citizen – whether atheist or Christian – is equally protected by the law). For the sake of freedom and for the sake of our country’s future, we dare not get this the wrong way round!
The Constitution guarantees South Africans freedom of conscience, religion and belief as a basic human right. This includes the freedom to live one’s life, in accordance with those beliefs. This freedom is what Nelson Mandela and many others fought for, and some even died for. This freedom is our birthright as citizens of the new South Africa that no one, including the State, should (be able to) take from us.
In the words of Nelson Mandela, “When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.”
*Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) is a Christian organisation that works to protect and promote religious freedom and the autonomy of the church in South Africa. To join FOR SA and/or receive our newsletter, at no cost, visit our webpage at www.forsa.org.za. Also follow us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/FreedomOfReligionSA for the latest on religious freedom and the autonomy of the church in SA.