Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, Rev Zipho Siwa has expressed concern over the proposal by the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission), to regulate religion in the country.

The proposal is contained in a Report on the hearings on commercialisation of religion and abuse of people’s belief systems.

In his submission to the Commission, the Presiding Bishop, while commending the CRL Rights Commission (‘CRL’)’s good intentions, was quick to point out that the proposed regulation of religion in the country, if implemented, would violate the constitutional rights of freedom of religion, belief and opinion, as well as freedom of association.

“Contrary to what the Report purports to suggest, the proposed regulation of religion is not congruent with the South African Charter for Religious Rights and Freedoms (SACRRF), to which the CRL is a signatory… Our Constitutional Court has already held that people must be free to believe, even if their beliefs (or the expression thereof by way of practice) seem ‘bizarre, illogical or irrational’,” he said.

Bishop Siwa said while the Report purports to encourage ‘self-regulation’, it is in real terms state regulation and censorship of religious institutions by the state.

He said, “In each instance, an organ or functionary of state would have the ultimate power to decide whether or not to register a particular religious institution, without which an institution would not be allowed to operate. In whatever ‘self-regulatory’ terms this is couched, these regulatory bodies will be state-appointed, state-funded and state-controlled. As a result, the proposed legislation effectively amounts to state regulation of religion. There is further no guarantee that compulsory registration will be effective in preventing and combating the problems identified by the CRL in its Report, and it will probably not stop people from meeting for religious purposes and expressing their religious convictions and beliefs as they choose.”

On the ‘commercialisation’ of religion, the Presiding Bishop submitted that while one may (justifiably) feel a sense of moral outrage at ‘charlatans’ and ‘con-artists’ who exploit the poor and vulnerable in society, unless such ‘commercialisation’ also amounts to harmful or unlawful activity, there is no legal justification for intervention.

Bishop Siwa also questioned the random sampling method that was used to select religious institutions summoned to appear before the Commission.

He said, “We are concerned that the investigation and the findings pursuant thereto are not representative of the broad spectrum of religious communities in South Africa. Furthermore, there is a serious disconnect between the (restricted scope of) the summons issued to religious institutions and the matters covered during the hearings, and the far-reaching regulation of religion subsequently proposed in the Report. As a result of this flawed process, the Report is likely to be open to challenge on judicial review.”

The Presiding Bishop ended by proposing a ‘Code of Ethics’ to which religious institutions and practitioners would be encouraged (but not legally compelled) to subscribe.

For the Commercialisation Report, click here