Hopes for positive government response on limits to religious gatherings — FOR SA

President Cyril Ramaphosa and Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana of the South African Council of Churches.  (PHOTO: Jacques Naude /African News Agency/iol news)May 28 2020

Freedom of Religion SA executive director Michael Swain says that following a Zoom meeting with President Cyril Ramaphosa yesterday FOR SA is hopeful for a positive response from the government on religious leaders’ request for limits on religious gatherings to be eased to 50% of floor space. Below is his report back on the meeting which was originally published on the For Sa website.

On Wednesday September 2 FOR SA had the privilege of speaking at the Zoom meeting convened by President Cyril Ramaphosa. The meeting was attended by 61 participants and lasted over two hours, with senior representation from both Government (including COGTA Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma; Minister of Justice Ronald Lamola and Deputy Minister of Health Joe Phaahla) and the interfaith community.

Advocate Nadene Badenhorst represented FOR SA (see the text of our presentation below), emphasising the growing concerns expressed at our meetings that the religious community is not being treated equitably when compared with other sectors and supporting the re-opening of venues to allow 50% of capacity. She was both thanked and commended for her input by the president.

The president opened the meeting by acknowledging the contribution of the faith community and how it has adapted with new ways of worshipping during this difficult time. He said that he is aware of the submissions which have been made for an easing of the restrictions on religious gatherings. He noted that the initial decision to permit gatherings of up to 50 people was a difficult one, for which he received significant criticism. However, he said that this had been handled responsibly by the faith community, who had respected the importance of the sanitation and social distancing protocols to help slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

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Although a significant portion of the meeting addressed the issue of corruption and the need for government to move swiftly to bring those responsible to justice, the current restrictions on religious gatherings were highlighted. The president said that the meeting was part of an ongoing process of consultation and discussion with the religious community. He observed that the threat of the virus remains and claimed that a surge is inevitable, so further sacrifices may be necessary. He stated that government is open to further engagement and conversation and sees the faith community as an important partner in the nation.

Several senior religious leaders represented a broad consensus in urging the president to permit religious gatherings to use at least 50% of the floor space of their venues. These included Pastor At Boshoff, Bishop Mosa Sono and Bishop Malusi (SACC) as well as those from the Hindu and Muslim faith. The need for people of faith to meet together was emphasised, which the religious community had demonstrated could be handled responsibly and effectively. This was a decision which should be left to the discretion of religious leaders, not government.

The president closed the meeting by thanking all those who had participated for the open discussion and urging the faith community to take the lead in strengthening the moral regeneration which the nation needs. Although he said that government does not favour one sector over another, he affirmed that he had heard the appeal for religious gatherings to be allowed to occupy 50% of venue space. This would be further discussed at the next meeting of the NCCC and that a statement would be released by government.

Presentation by Adv Nadene Badenhorst on behalf of FOR SA

Honourable President, thank you for giving Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) the opportunity and privilege to address you this evening. We recognise the immense burden that you carry for our nation, and thank you for your tireless leadership during this unprecedented crisis.

My name is Advocate Nadene Badenhorst and I am the legal counsel for FOR SA, a legal advocacy group working to protect and promote the religious freedom rights granted to all South Africans by our Constitution. As such, my address will be focused exclusively on this aspect, leaving the equally important matters of corruption, poverty, gender-based violence etc to the other groups who are mandated to speak to those issues.

In this matter however, where our constitutional rights to religious freedom have been temporarily limited by the lockdown regulations and directions, FOR SA has been given a mandate to represent over 15 million people, from a cross section of churches, religious organisations and faith groups, who are not typically represented by other religious structures.

To be brief, FOR SA has actively engaged with Government on this matter since April when the draft risk adjusted strategy & levels were first published for comment. Since that time and to date, we’ve written no less than eight letters to the COGTA Minister (cc’d to your office), but have only received one substantive letter in reply, assuring us that the issues raised would be given “urgent attention”. We were subsequently granted an audience with the COGTA Minister, on August 4th, but unfortunately that meeting also ended inconclusively.

We are therefore very grateful for this opportunity – particularly because your invitation was received on the same day last week when we held a major conference call with our constituency.

The concerns expressed at our meeting last week were primarily focused on the disparity with which government appears to be treating different sectors of our society. Many of the senior religious leaders present observed that the worst of the pandemic has evidently passed, with infection and death rates (thankfully!) in steady decline and the temporary hospitals set up by government to be ready to treat those infected, now dismantled.

However, the same stringent restrictions imposed on the religious community now three months ago (on June 1) remain firmly in place, while casinos operate at 50% of the venue’s capacity. Cinemas and conference centres are allowed to meet in multiple venues on the same premises (each limited to 50 people), whereas religious premises are limited to a single meeting of 50 people. Shopping centres are again running at full capacity. Car parks are full. Taxis run at 100% of capacity, as do airplanes. Drive-in services at churches are not allowed by government, while drive-in cinemas are selling tickets for as many as 800 people at a single gathering. It has also been reported that the request of health and fitness clubs to be allowed to operate at 50% of capacity is also being favourably considered by government.

Mr President, in light of this, many religious leaders are – perhaps understandably – of the opinion that the religious community appears to be late and last in government’s order of priorities at this stage. While people are allowed to make their own health choices when it comes to the transport they take and the shops, restaurants, shebeens and even casinos they visit, the same discretion is not granted when it comes to being allowed to visit a church, mosque, synagogue or temple.

As a result, the continuing restriction on religious gatherings is increasingly being seen as an issue of freedom and fairness – especially as many view gathering and worshipping together with others, and participating in religious sacraments, as a fundamental part of their faith.

That said, the issue is not that the religious community must re-open its venues. There is zero obligation on the part of any religious organisation to re-open for public gatherings, just as there is no obligation on any member of a religious organisation to attend such a gathering. Rather, it is the growing belief that it is neither reasonable, nor justifiable, for government to treat the religious community with a different standard to the rest of the economic sector.

In this context, a growing number of religious organisations and faith groups have told FOR SA that they are considering the possibility of legal action as a last resort, to ensure equal treatment of the religious community in comparison to other sectors of the society and enforce their constitutional rights. This meeting could therefore not have been more timely, Mr President, as our hope remains that the religious sector and government would take hands and work WITH one another in a mutual spirit of understanding and cooperation, to resolve the various challenges.

In conclusion, Mr President, the sincere petition and appeal of the 15 million people which FOR SA represents in this matter, is that government would immediately reconsider its current position and permit the religious community to re-open for public gatherings – with all the important social distancing, hygiene and sanitation protocols in place – to at least 50% of the capacity of their buildings and facilities.

I note the warning by the Deputy Minister of Health that experience has shown a resurgence in confined and crowded areas, where there is no physical distancing or masks. However, religious gatherings should pose no greater risk than any of the other sectors of society – and potentially even less in circumstances where stricter protocols apply to religious gatherings than, for example, shops, restaurants. etc.

Mr President, we hope to be able to revert to our constituency with a positive report once you have given your urgent (and hopefully favourable) attention to this request. Thank you once again for the opportunity and be assured that you remain in our prayers.

One Comment

  1. Hugh G Wetmore

    I commend FoR for this well-reasoned, respectful, plea. It is just and wise to include other faiths too. Our prayer continue.