A couple of news items that appeared recently have important implications for religious freedom.
A Stellenbosch man is taking six schools to court over how far the institutions can go with teaching religion at state schools.
”It has been nine years that I have been on this case,” said small business owner Hans Pietersen on Friday, of a battle rooted in a ”Jesus Week” activity at his triplets’ school when they were still little.
”They wanted everybody to wear armbands for Jesus which immediately exposes everybody who is not part of those efforts,” explained Pietersen.
In contrast with that, I recall that when our daughter was at a church school Grades 1 and 2 were to put on a nativity play. There’s nothing unusual or controversial about that in a church school, but one of the teachers was careful to ask a Muslim pupil if her parents would mind if she took part. “I’ll tell them that they can be thankful I’m not the pig,” she said, and when the play was eventually performed, she played the part of a cow. But she was asked, and was not pressured into participating, unlike the children in the state school who were expected to wear armbands.
A more serious news item, however, is this one New laws to tackle commericalisation of religion in SA: report:
Government plans to introduce legislation to regulate faith-based organisations in South Africa, in an effort to cut down on religious leaders who are making millions of rands through legal loopholes.
According to a report by the Cape Argus, the new legislation will be heard in parliament in June 2017 following an analysis of the public complaints and interviews by the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission).
“We are not disputing that there are still some good religious leaders out there, but as a country we are also faced with a challenge of people who run churches like family businesses and no one questions them on how the church’s money is spent,” said Commission chairperson Thoko Mkhwanazi- Xaluva.
“We also have those who abuse their power and make congregants do all sort of things like drinking petrol and eating snakes. We can’t have things like that happening but they will continue if the industry remains unregulated.”
The word “industry” used in this connection is interesting. How does the government propose to deal with this?
One way to do it might be to follow the example of Botswana, where religious organisations are registered by the government, and the government has sometimes forced them to change their names. The Apostolic Spiritual Healing Church, for example, was forced to drop “Apostolic” from its name, because, the government said, there were already too many churches with “Apostolic” in their names, and so it was forced to become the “Spiritual Healing Church”, even though it was known as the Apostolic Spiritual Healing Church in Namibia and South Africa.
For many denominations, however, there is nothing they would like more than to register with the government, because this gives them a recognition they otherwise feel they lack.
This is marvellous for church historians trying to disentangle the skeins of South African denominational history. No sooner have two or three gathered in the name of Jesus than one (or more) of them are writing off to Pretoria to be recognised and registered. And for decades civil servants in Pretoria would write back saying that the religions of citizens were no concern of the government and there was no need to register. And the recipients of these letters would promptly put the file number of this correspondence on their letterheads, to show that they were recognised.
The civil servants were being rather disingenuous, of course, because black ministers needed special permits to buy wine for communion before 1962, and they also needed recognition for concession fares on trains. So there was a complex game being played.
In the 1960s, however, the government realised that it could up the stakes in the game by conning the churches into supporting apartheid.
They changed their policy and started officially registering black churches (or saying that they were), provided that the churches concerned had a clause in their constitutions to say that their churches were only for “Bantu” and only “Bantu” could be member or leaders of the church. That conned a lot of church leaders into signing a statement that explicitly stated that their churches supported apartheid.
So the history of government regulation of churches shows that it is not an unmixed blessing, and can have serious implications for religious freedom.
If some churches are doing weird stuff like encouraging people to drink petrol or rat poison, or collecting money in dubious circumstances, then perhaps it might be best to see whether they can be prosecuted under existing laws. After all, the Nationalist government did not have to pass a special law to prosecute John Rees, the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, for fraud.