CRL meeting with parliament today on state silencing of religion

Despite serious concerns expressed by the South African faith community, the CRL Rights Commission is heading to parliament today (Tuesday June 27) to present their final report on the “Commercialisation of Religion and Abuse of People’s Belief Systems” to several portfolio committees, says Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) in a media release.

In its report, the CRL is asking for amendments to the CRL Act to enable it to become the final arbiter of religion in South Africa with the ability to establish an extensive national structure to license (and thereby control) every religious practitioner and place of worship, says FOR SA.

While there is widespread support for concerns that the CRL has highlighted  — such as people being forced to drink petrol and some churches abusing their non-profit status — the solution that the CRL is proposing is widely considered to be unnecessary, unworkable and unconstitutional, says the media statement.

State control of religion
“The major concern is that CRL’s proposal amounts to state control of religion and this is a complete reversal of the historic relationship between the religious community and the government” says Michael Swain, Executive Director of FOR SA, which represents over six million Christians from various denominations and churches.

“The CRL is defined in the constitution as a state institution and its commissioners are appointed by the president. Its mandate is to promote and protect the religious rights of communities and it was never intended, either in terms of the constitution or the CRL Act, to license and control them,” he says.

The CRL’s Report proposes that each religion will have its own peer review committee, so (for example) there will be a single committee for the entire Christian religion. The CRL claim that this is self-regulation, but the peer review committee body is defined as “an advisory body to the CRL Rights Commission”. The CRL will be represented on the peer review committee and will effectively run and finance it by the provision of “research, legal support, secretariat and other necessary services.” This committee is therefore subservient to (and dependent on) the CRL, referring matters to it and advising it on all resolutions it has taken regarding complaints. The report clearly states that “the final decision powers shall lie with the CRL Rights Commission”, so it is evident that control of all religion will vest in the CRL Rights Commission, says FOR SA.

It explains that the primary task of the peer review committee is to establish and license umbrella organisations, whose function is to provide the level of specialist support, advice, oversight, governance and capacity building specified in the CRL’s report. The CRL report further says that the peer review committee must take into account (among other things) whether an umbrella organisation applying for recognition has “set minimum standards of good governance, ethics and acceptable religious practices as per their religious doctrine” and whether the spiritual leaders of the umbrella organisation are able “to ensure that [a member of this Umbrella Organisation] remains on a good spiritual path”. It is therefore inevitable that the CRL will ultimately take decisions regarding the acceptability of doctrinal belief and expression and this is fundamentally opposed to the principle of freedom of religion.

Overreach of powers
“The CRL’s proposal is a clear overreach of the CRL’s powers and prerogratives as a Chapter 9 institution,” says Advocate Nadene Badenhorst of FOR SA. “The commission has not been granted executive powers by the constitution and their attempt to assume such through an amendment of the CRL Act, is misguided and unconstitutional.”

Another question that is not answered by the CRL in its report is how their proposed structure will be financed. When asked directly, CRL Chairperson Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said parliament would decide, but given its historic reluctance to increase the CRL’s budget, it is highly unlikely that funds will be granted out of the current national fiscus to fund the elaborate national and regional structure the CRL is proposing, says FOR SA.

The only source of funding will in all likelihood be extracted from the religious community in the form of fees for the licenses that will be required from every religious practitioner and place of worship. This revenue stream is estimated to approach a billion rand annually.

“It is very regrettable that the CRL Commission has failed to take into account the serious concerns and objections submitted by the faith community or South Africa”, says Swain, whose organisation has been waiting since February for the opportunity to discuss with the CRL the joint submission it made with the South African Council for the Protection and Promotion of Religious Rights and Freedoms (SACRRF), whose combined constituency represents over 20 million people.

“The CRL’s proposal for compulsory licencing of all, is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The truth is that there are existing ways to address and resolve the issues the CRL has identified, without eroding the important rights to freedom of religion and freedom of association that the South African Constitution has granted,” says Swain.

Adequate laws already in place
FOR SA and many other churches and denominations have argued that there are laws that already deal with every abuse that the CRL Commission has identified and these simply need to be enforced. It is clear that when this happens — as in the case of the so-called “Prophet of Doom” who was interdicted by the Limpopo Department of Health using the Hazardous Chemical Substances Act and Regulations, which already regulates this matter.

The problem is that these laws are often not being properly enforced, so one recommendation is for the CRL to set up a rapid response unit to alert the relevant authorities whenever it receives a complaint, says FOR SA.

In other cases where there is a lack of compliance, this is often done out of ignorance and the CRL Commission can play a valuable role in ensuring there is an improvement in the education and capacity building of the religious community, says the media release.

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