The CRL Rights Commission has indicated that its final report on the “Commercialisation of Religion and Abuse of People’s Belief Systems”, which recommends broad-scale regulation of religion in South Africa, will be presented to parliament in June.
At this stage the presentation to parliament will have no immediate legal effect. But should parliament accept the commission’s recommendations and direct the drafting of the proposed amendments of the CRL Act, public input will be inivited once the amendments have been prepared and published.
Freedom of Religion South Africa is concerned that the CRL’s report does not take into account 67 pages of concerns and alternative proposals by legal experts with the backing of millions of people across all faith groups which were submitted to it – and that the commission’s recommendations are unnecessary, unworkable and unconstitutional.
The CRL report, which follows various instances of abuse and unlawful activity taking place in the name of religion (e.g. spraying congregants with “Doom”), recommends that the CRL Act (in terms of which the commission is established and which gives the commission its powers) be amended to provide for the regulation of religion through a number of statutory bodies to be created.
The proposed news bodies are a peer review council (who will effectively decide whether or not a particular religion will be recognised / accredited in SA), various peer review committees (one per religion) and various accredited umbrella organisations (under each peer review committee), with the commission itself being the “final arbiter in all matters” (page 48 of the final report).
In terms of the Commission’s proposal, all religious practitioners and places of worship will have to be “registered” (that means licenced, on compliance with certain conditions) with the commission in order to operate as such. The commission will also have the power to withdraw the licences of religious practitioners and/or places of worship. Should any religious practitioner or place of worship wish to challenge such a decision, it would have to bring a review application against the commission in a high court.
Concerns about the final report
The concern is that the final report is a revamp of the initial report with slight variations in terms of what is being proposed by the CRL, and does not take into account the concerns or alternative proposals put forward by FOR SA (representing over 6 million people from 277 denominations, fraternals, churches and other religious groups) in its 67-page submission to the commission in response to its (initial) report. This submission, which was a joint response with the SA Council for the Protection and Promotion of Religious Rights and Freedoms (representing over 22 million people from across faith groups in South Africa), was developed by a team of lawyers and professors with decades of combined experience and expertise in the areas of religious freedom, human rights and constitutional law.
Despite the commission’s insistence that what they are proposing is not state-regulation but “self-regulation”, the fact remains that in terms of s 181 of the SA Constitution, the CRL Rights Commission is a “state institution” whose chairperson and commissioners, in terms of the CRL Act, are appointed by the State President and as such, are political appointments. As such, the “final arbiter in all matters” relating to religion, will be a state institution – not religious bodies themselves, as the CRL would have them believe.
It is also not true, as the CRL has claimed, that the CRL Act says that the CRL “must” have a database of all religious practitioners and places of worship. In terms of s 5(1)(j) of the CRL Act, “may … establish and maintain databases of cultural, religious and linguistic community organisations and institutions and experts on these communities”. There is however a world of difference between keeping a database, and requiring all religious practitioners and places of worship to apply for a licence to practice, the issuing of which will be subject to certain conditions (which are not mentioned with any specificity in the final report at all).
Further, the interdict obtained against the “Prophet of Doom” has shown, there are already existing laws and legal remedies in place to deal with the problems identified by the CRL in its report and there is nothing that stops the CRL itself from implementing those laws or referring matters to the relevant authorities where they become aware of unlawful activities being perpetrated in the name of religion.
Despite repeated requests to meet with the CRL, the CRL (who has selectively distributed its final report and who only made same available to FOR SA, after it had come to our knowledge that such a report was being distributed and on request to the CRL) indicated that it preferred speaking to the masses rather than organisations specifically mandated for this purpose by their constituencies.
In the circumstances, FOR SA has addressed an Open Letter to the Chairlady which we sent to her personally and which explains our concerns with regard to the final report to be presented to Parliament soon. We are yet to receive a reply from the CRL on this letter.
FOR SA has already repeatedly expressed our solidarity and support for what we understand to be a bona fide attempt by the CRL to address genuine abuses taking place in the name of religion, while highlighting our deep concern regarding their proposal to regulate and license religion in South Africa.
We remain committed to this process, and will continue to seek to engage the CRL and, at the appropriate time, parliament to ensure maximum protection of the constitutional rights to freedom of religion and association. In the meanwhile, for updates on this and other matters relating to religious freedom, follow us on our webpage at www.forsa.org.za and also on our Facebook page at “Freedom of Religion SA”.
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