When freedom of religion is not so free after all

PHOTO: Great-images
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.


  1. Reading this “press release”,I sort off can feel the deep emotional “hurt” in thousands of Christians, almost if, we might as well give up…but than,we still have A Living GOD ,Who will have the ultimate last word!! GOD bless our Christian lawyers and every one that keeps on praying,, Amen..Lets also keep praying for this “Gateway network”..

  2. Im also the President of a Business Women Network organisation, Women in the Workplace. We just had the case where two lesbian women, who attended some of our network activities in the past, complained about the fact that we’re having ‘church’ at our meetings, by opening with a Word and prayer and feel that they cannot invite their friends (lesbian as well as other religions) to our network meetings. I kept to my standards, just saying that I am not going to conform to their standards – I have freedom of religion and my organisation will keep a standard of Christian values, through opening by prayer.

  3. I have in my possession a book that was published in 1887 called ‘Fourteen Month’s War’, “being the record of the acts of The Salvation Army apostles in South Africa from April 1886 to July 1887.” It’s an incredible story about Major Henry Thurman and his team of officers who set up the South African headquarters of the Salvation Army in Port Elizabeth and from there, infiltrated the entire country with the Gospel.
    These men and women, unlike the many other denominational churches who came to bring their colonial religion and culture under the guise of Christianity, had no other agenda but to preached Jesus and His salvation for all mankind. With special emphasis on the word ‘all’, because they effectively brought the Gospel to all people groups without discrimination, including to the large Indian community in Natal.
    Perhaps the most telling part of the book is about the hardships that these men and women and their young children endured on ox wagons as they traveled over hostile terrain throughout the country, and the persecution they received from the white population and their colonial church and government masters in each place they set up bases.
    It made me aware that the hardships and persecutions which the early church faced up until Constantine and beyond, has actually been going on for over 2000 years. Yes, true Christianity is not for cowards. Neither is it for whiners, who usually have another agenda rather than the Gospel, or they are disillusioned, having being illusioned by the meaning of true Christianity in the first place.
    It’s alarming to see how ‘Christianity’ has evolved to the point that we now expect to live life in a nice, comfortable and rosy way, demanding equal rights and respect to do our own thing, just like everyone else. How did the army of God get so ‘taken’ and so soft; and how did the war become so self-centered?
    Maybe we need to be reminded that the greatest witnesses (and you can find some of them in Hebrews chapter 11) of our faith were those who were persecuted, tortured and killed, because they were laying down their lives so that OTHERS can receive the promise of salvation. In case we’ve forgotten, that’s the Gospel of Jesus. And we need to be reminded that those sacrificial acts of love so stunned the unbelievers, that it compelled them to make a decision about Jesus one way or the other.
    This self-centered religion which some of us are now calling ‘Christianity’, has no better example than the way we respond and react with news of more ISIS killings in the Middle East and elsewhere. Somehow in our minds, the killing of a hundred Christians demands total outrage, but the killing of thousands of Muslim women and children, who have never even heard about Jesus, is unworthy of the same response. Come on, there’s a blatant lie in our thinking, or can’t we see it?

  4. Rev Ian Karshagen

    Well done Nerina! The Gospel is the stench of death to those who are dying and the fragrance of life to those who are being saved. This same Gospel nevertheless remains the Gospel. Praise God!

  5. I highly commend your well-reasoned article, Adv Badenhorst. Freedom of Religion SA is doing an excellent job. May God Himself stand with you as you fight for Justice.
    Barry, I hear what you say, and if we are to be persecuted for rigteousness’ sake, God WILL bless us. We must not compromise to avoid persecution. However, God’s blessing on our nation can only come about if we as a nation (especially the leaders, and the law) practice “Kindness, Justice and Righteousness in Humility” (Jer 9:23,24 and more than 200 parallel references to KJR in H). This is the goal for which Christians should strive in the political arena: to ensure our nation pleases God in its justice system. Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika, especially EmZansi!