South Africans should be prepared to defend their freedom of religion like never before as several court cases and draft legislation this year will challenge their right to practice and share what they believe without prosecution, said Michael Swain executive director of Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA).
“There is nowhere to run or hide anymore, the world gets darker by the day. While we still have the right to practice our religion freely, we need to defend it at all cost,” he told a large group of Christian leaders during a recent Love Pretoria East (LPE) meeting in Pretoria. LPE is a networking group of leaders in the city who come together monthly to strengthen bonds and talk about issues affecting their calling.
“To protect our Church, we need to understand the nature of the times and equip ourselves with the relevant knowledge to withstand our enemy,” said Swain
He said he was shocked by the events following the state of disaster that was first declared in March 2020. “I never imagined that the government in our country would have the power to shut down our churches overnight,” he said.
Swain likened defending freedom of religion to the guarding of an outer city wall. “The Bible warned us about the persecution of Christians, but that does not mean we should let it happen without actively resisting it. We need to defend the rights that we still have.”
He said FOR SA is like a watchman on the wall. “Our goal is to study all new draft legislation so that we can react to any new law that, when passed, will have a direct impact on freedom of religion. If we spot such a law or regulation we raise a red flag.”
One of the goals of FOR SA is to help South Africans understand the impact of new laws on their rights. “Most South Africans are not expert in law, they don’t see the threats to freedom of religion written in the detail of new draft legislation, we pull back the curtain, and show our fellow believers the real impact these laws will have on our rights, if passed.”
He said is it crucial for the Church to find its voice and mobilise as many believers as possible to formally object to such law, or regulations. “In our country public participation still plays an important role. When the government is inundated with objections, they are held accountable by law to consider the public opinion; in a democracy every voice still counts. We do our best to lobby against any such law, but we can’t do it alone, we need to mobilise the faith communities to push back in as many ways as possible.”
About four years ago the government tried to pass a law to regulate religious leaders. Their aim was to create a governmental body responsible for issuing licences to preach — effectively empowering them to regulate what pastors may preach from the pulpit. “Luckily we picked up on it, and were able to lobby successfully to stop the law in its tracks. But his is a fine example of how close they came to regulating freedom of religion. The faith community need to understand how serious this is,” Swain said.
This year is no different. FOR SA were recently granted an appeal in their ground-breaking court case against the government’s ban on religious gatherings in December 2020/January 2021.
The judgment “puts unfettered power in the hands of government” and “is too important and too dangerous not to appeal,” said Swain at the time He believes the appeal’s outcome is crucial as South Africans need to know that they can hold the government accountable, even under the Disaster Management Act.
Other upcoming court cases which could have dire implications for faith communities include:
The Chetty case – the South African Hindu Dharma Sabha’s (SAHDS) has instituted two separate cases to the Chatsworth Magistrate’s Court (sitting as an Equality Court) for what they claim were two separate incidents of hate speech committed by Reverend Llewellyn Joseph (“Reverend Joseph”) and street evangelist Simeon Chetty (“Mr Chetty”) respectively. Both incidents were recorded on video — summarised from FOR SA’s website
FOR SA is of the opinion that in our diverse society with its multitude of cultures and religious beliefs, people should not be prosecuted by the government for sharing their faith. FOR SA has previously said, that it is a good thing, that mere offensive speech is not prohibited by the Constitution, because if we could ask (or even compel) the government to prosecute those who offend us, then we ourselves could be prosecuted for offending someone else.
The Beloftebos case – In the latest development the owners of Beloftebos, a wedding venue which was taken to court by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) after they declined to host and organise the celebration of a same-sex marriage, have written to the SAHRC in an attempt to amicably resolve this matter, which has been ongoing for more than two years.
Beloftebos was first reported to the SAHRC in 2017 after they refused, because of their religious convictions, to host the wedding of a same-sex couple, Alexandra Thorne and Alex Lu who have since left SA. They were reported again after they turned down the request of same-sex couple Sasha-Lee Heekes and Megan Watling to host their wedding in January 2020. In September 2020 Heekes and Watling filed legal papers seeking R2 million in damages from Beloftebos and a ruling that the venue’s refusal to host their wedding on religious grounds constituted hate speech or discrimination.
The Isiphandla case which will be heard in the Johannesburg High Court, sitting as the Equality Court. This case revolves around the issue of whether private religious schools can require pupils and parents to abide by the schools’ religious policies and rules. The case was made after a Gauteng, private Christian school refused to allow an isiZulu-speaking pupil to attend school because the child was wearing a traditional ceremonial goat-skin bracelet called an isiphandla. The school argues that the wearing of an isiphandla is a religious practice and part of traditional African beliefs, which conflicts with the school’s biblical ethos and beliefs.
The school temporarily sent the learner home with learning material so that he could continue his studies until the moment the bracelet fell off naturally, as required by Zulu custom and beliefs.
“We all want to live in a world where we are not forced to do something that is against our beliefs,” Swain said. “Please visit our website to become actively involved in stopping draft legislation threatening our rights.”
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