Religious freedom in the firing line

Gateway News, the ‘South African Christian News Portal’, is always a good place to find over-reaction, misrepresentation, and unfounded panic, for example this account of ‘militant atheist groups‘ that are (shock, horror!) trying to stop Joshua Generation Church from endorsing corporal punishment.

A recent Gateway News post by Adv Nadene Badenhorst, legal counsel of FOR SA, catalogues some of the ways in which religion will find itself “in the firing line” during 2016. But a cursory look at the cases cited reveals the opposite, in that it’s religious privilege that she’s concerned about, rather than religious freedom.

This is because religious freedom means that folks should be free to practice their religion, rather than being compelled to – it includes the freedom to not be subject to religious laws or standards.

The medical ethics principle of informed consent is relevant here too, in that if you can’t assent to religious standards (if you’re a child, for example), your freedom of religion is also being violated – you’re living according to religious rules whether you like them or not.

Furthermore, even if you’re an adult who is being exploited by misinformation provided by people of power and influence, your freedom is also somewhat compromised – you’re making poor choices based on incomplete or false information, such as when you’re persuaded to eat snakes or grass.

Here are the cases she mentions, and a brief account of how her preferred outcome in all these cases would perpetuate privilege rather than promote religious freedom:

A Mostert v Joshua Generation Church (SAHRC)

A South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) report “found that spanking in the home violates children’s and other constitutional rights, and is for that reason unconstitutional and unlawful”. FOR SA’s response is to say:

Importantly, contrary to what the SAHRC’s Report suggests, JoshGen does not actively “promote” or “require” members to spank their children. The Church does however believe, teach and preach (the whole of) the Bible, as it has every right to do, including therefore the Scriptures on child correction. How those Scriptures are interpreted and applied by parents however, is up to each parent to decide for themselves because every child is unique. In this, JoshGen is supported by religious leaders representing 12 million people in SA.

Yes, of course the church can teach and preach the whole of the Bible. While doing so, they could – and should, if the Bible recommends something unlawful – also mention that this particular practice is a historical anachronism, no longer practiced. Just like other things you might find in the Bible, like the subjugation of women, or slavery.

It’s a cop-out to say that you can’t influence how the scriptures are “interpreted” – the scriptures are fairly explicit on recommending corporal punishment, and in teaching them uncritically, you’re endorsing the practice.

We know better than the authors of the Bible did, thanks to scientific investigation of the benefits and harms of spanking. And even though you can amass plenty of anecdotes saying that it helps and doesn’t harm (I’m one such anecdote myself), there is “no scientific evidence to support that corporal punishment is an effective behavior modification technique” [on aggregate].

The SAHRC’s Report is greatly concerning. It crosses the sacred line of family, and interferes with the freedom of parents to raise their children according to their own moral or religious convictions. Should the Report remain unchallenged and be accepted by Parliament, potentially responsible parents who love their children and only want what is best for them, could find themselves arrested and prosecuted on charges of assault, and have their children removed from them and placed in foster care (as is already happening in countries like Sweden where spanking is forbidden). One can only imagine that damage that this will do to children and families in SA!

“Potentially responsible parents” could aspire to be actual responsible parents (rather than potential ones), and be guided by the best evidence on child-rearing. “Potentially responsible” churches also have the option of being responsible, and encouraging parents to do just that, while encouraging the “sacred line of family” to be drawn somewhere closer to modernity.

As for “damage”, if the evidence suggests – as it does – that spanking typically harms rather than helps, concern for the welfare of “children and families” should lead FOR SA to support the SAHRC’s conclusion, rather than oppose it.

It is not the place of the SAHRC, as a secular institution, to tell believers how to read and interpret their sacred texts. That is between them and God alone. The Report puts believers before the choice of obeying the law, or obeying their faith (with legal consequences should they choose to obey their faith instead). This is unconscionable and unconstitutional. Should the SAHRC’s recommendations remain unchallenged, it would open the door to the SAHRC censoring any religious belief and speech in SA, leaving any sacred text they disagree with, vulnerable and at risk of being banned.

Yes, it actually is their place, because we have a secular law. Where religious practices violate the law, the religious practices need to adapt – you don’t get to ignore modern law in favour of laws from ancient theocratic societies.

As for the absurd slippery slope this passage concludes with: it’s absurd because the SAHRC isn’t disagreeing to simply be difficult – they are disagreeing because the practice in question is unlawful. They would have no reason to pick on any random passage in your sacred text, and there has been no mention of “banning” any texts.

OGOD v Laerskool Randhart & 6 Others

This is a very important case for religious freedom and education in SA. Should the Court find in favour of OGOD, Christianity could potentially be banned from schools. As a result, schools could become sterile environments for the Gospel.

This is a complete misrepresentation of OGOD’s case, and it’s unfortunate to see such dishonesty deployed in the name of an ostensibly divine cause. The case in question relates to forcing schools to obey existing policy that calls for religions (and non-religious views) to be treated with equal respect at schools.

Schools (public schools, that is) are not permitted to be of an explicitly Christian (or whatever) ideology. School prayers and assemblies need to be “interfaith” (including allowing for non-religious ceremonies). Christianity isn’t going to be “banned” – it simply cannot enjoy special treatment.

I’ve written plenty about this in the past, so will say no more on it here.

Investigation into the “commercialisation” of religion and abuse of people’s belief systems

Here, FOR SA is concerned with the CRL Commission’s investigation into “harmful religious practices”, and Badenhorst says:

While FOR SA shares the Commission’s concerns about unscrupulous pastors who abuse their positions to manipulate the poor out of money for selfish gain, we are concerned that the scope of the investigation is overbroad and touches on matters of religious doctrine which are protected from State interference.

They are concerned about the scope being over-broad because, again, they are wanting to protect established – and unwarranted – privilege. There are matters of religious doctrine which have historically been protected from State interference, yes, but that doesn’t mean they should be protected from interference.

As I’ve written previously, why should the CRL Commission not also include questioning “whether we should ban religious circumcision“, or address “the prosperity gospel of Ray McCauley and others, who encourage people to impoverish themselves in exchange for hypothetical future financial blessings from God?”

Outlawing spanking in the home

Here, Badenhorst mostly repeats the claims made in relation to the JoshGen case, above. But she also says:

Since 2014, FOR SA has consulted with various legal and psychological experts, locally and abroad, with a view to putting comprehensive research and arguments before Parliament in support of retaining reasonable and moderate chastisement in the home. We believe that, instead of creating another law, government should rather spend its time and our taxpayers’ money on implementing the existing laws, which already firmly protect children against child abuse.

The research has already been done, by professional and impartial bodies like the American Psychological Association. And because spanking typically brings more harm than benefit, it’s entirely reasonable to introduce a law against it.

Government can do that while also spending its time implementing existing laws against other forms of child abuse, and it’s a pity that FOR SA seem to not want to protect children against this form of abuse, or to recognise that it’s abusive at all.

New hate speech legislation

This legislation will have a direct impact on the ability of the church and indeed of Christians, to freely speak, preach and teach their Christian beliefs (particularly in relation to issues of sexual morality, Biblical marriage, the fact that God created us male and female, etc). If not careful, the legislation could potentially result in Christians being harassed by those who hold to a liberal worldview, and being prosecuted and sentenced for “hate speech”.

I have no idea why FOR SA think that the new legislation will prohibit them from being able to continue being homophobic, trans-phobic, sexually conservative and sexist. If the new law does indeed restrict their ability to express those views, I’ll join them in fighting against that law.

But in the meanwhile, freedom of speech means you can say those things – and it also means that when I or anyone else encounters that version of Christian (and it is a version – many Christians aren’t bigots), “harassment” (by which they probably mean criticism or derision) seems entirely warranted.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.