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South African Pagans say no to regulation of religion by the State

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

A recent preliminary report of hearings into the abuse of belief systems as a consequence of the commercialization of religion, published by the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, has raised the ire of South African Pagans. The Commission has proposed that all religion and religious organizations in South Africa should be regulated by legislation. 

The Commission investigated a number of complaints lodged against charismatic Christian churches, some of whom are based in other countries, for unethical and illegal actions taken by church leaders. Churches investigated failed to account for millions in revenue, had either not registered as non-profit public benefit companies, or had failed to pay taxes. Some church leaders had routinely abused congregants by obliging them to drink petrol, eat rats or snakes as a way of expressing their charismatic faith.

According to section 18 of the Commission’s report:
• The Religion must have a Religious Text that has a defined origin or an origin proved so ancient that no one alive can remember the true origin.
• The Religion should have a significant number of followers that believe in and that adhere to the tenets of the faith.
• Religious peer review committees must represent the whole religious community and not just a portion of the religion.
• A General Religious Practitioner, being a person that imparts knowledge of the tenets of the faith to a gathering of worshipers, shall be required to obtain a license to operate.

Several public polls were conducted on social media to gauge the general response of Pagans to the proposals. Most Pagans who participated in these polls objected to any regulation of religion, but especially to the proposals for regulation by the Commission.

The South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA) objected to the regulation proposal. “SAPRA would argue that government has no place regulating religion! Sufficient legislation exists with which to deal with the most important issues raised by the CRL Commission, including regulations pertaining to the registration of Non-Profit ‘Public Benefit’ Status, tax and criminal law. The fact that some churches interviewed by the Commission have failed to obey these laws is not sufficient reason for new law, but rather reason to enforce existing laws more strictly. SAPRA therefore opposes the CRL Commission’s proposal to regulate religion, religious organizations and religious practitioners. SAPRA further encourages all South African Pagans to ensure that in their practice of their faith, they observe the laws of the land and act responsibly and ethically towards other citizens.” This objection was shared by many Pagans who are not members of SAPRA.

Mja Principe, convenor of the South African Pagan Council released the following statement, which I quote in full. “The SAPC is against the regulation of religion by the State as proposed by the CRL Commission.  The Council guarantees the autonomy of every independent member as well as the affiliated groups and encourages its members to obey the laws of our country, irrespective of the religious or spiritual persuasion of the Pagans within its ranks.  The SAPC advocate that disregard for basic human rights and proven criminal actions should be addressed by enforcing the existing laws, in a more thorough and strict manner and that all Members of the Council should be encouraged to continue being law abiding citizens, who are respectful towards all our country’s citizens, from within their respective, personal spiritual and religious walks.  The SAPC firmly believes that no Department or Commission has the right to regulate a person’s belief or spirituality of choice, as this would provide loopholes for prejudicial treatment and lead to the violation of the individual’s right to choose his own belief and live it with freedom and spontaneity.  Spirituality, devotion, faith and religious behaviour cannot be dictated. Furthermore, the suggestion that a group’s numerical representation is to be pivotal in deciding the legitimacy of the religion, notwithstanding the existence of an ancient (not modern) religious text or its absence, we would find minority religions and spiritualities suddenly being declared numerically inadequate, and the violation of those citizens’ right to freedom of religion, self-identification and expression of spirituality or faith, would be at stake.  We would be taking a step back in the evolution of freedoms in our Land. Religious Organisations, as entities, as well as the individuals in their religious communities should all be held accountable for their actions, especially when these contravene the Laws of our Country.  No further regulation is necessary, other than the strict application of the Common Law where a crime has been investigated and proven.“

Respondents to the polls also shared their thoughts. A left-hand practitioner who wishes to be known only as Meritanpu responded to the poll question, ‘Do you think that Pagan religions should be regulated by law?’ by saying "No. But, also, what if you're sitting with a religion already registered in another country that has maybe one or two adherents here? Would they have to declare themselves? My feelings are that religious persuasion should be a private matter and so long as no laws are broken, government should not interfere."

Peter Damm wrote “No, I'm against it. At least as a direct reaction. Perhaps it needs some more thought. I see what they're trying to do in controlling harmful fundamentalist Christians who make people eat snakes and drink petrol. But we have laws already that could be applied to deal with that. I wouldn't have a problem with a tribunal where people can explain themselves if alleged abuses are going on, but the state and religion should be separate, unless proven crimes are committed in a specific organization.”

Whilst most Pagans agreed that religious groups, organizations and religions had a duty to obey the law and respect the rights of their members and adherents, some Pagans expressed concern that attempting to regulate diverse minority religions which fall within the religious movement of Paganism, would result in prejudice towards Pagans by both the State and larger religious organizations and churches.

Adrienne Monroe wrote "No. All that provides me with is an extreme sense of discomfort. I do feel that organised religions (the wonderfully lucrative charismatic churches for example) should pay taxes on their income."

Ken Caemlyn responded “No. No person, department or government has the right to regulate what people choose to believe. This is far too generalized and will only benefit and empower the mainstream Abrahamic faiths which already enjoy governmental preference.”

On the South African Pagan Council’s ‘Law Reform Committee’, which I chair, Pagan writer Erebos summed up what many Pagans have been saying and offered some suggestion for the way forward. “Religion is a private affair, and a personal choice, and it is not a government’s job to declare which beliefs and religious practices are correct, and the government should initiate as little religion-specific legislation as possible. All people should be free to pursue their own religion at will - but, of course, not at the expense of other people’s freedoms and rights to believe or not to believe. The only way to assure that religion does not end under government control is for all people to:
1. Fight for the rights of all religions;
2. Stand for equality and non-discrimination;
3. Reject all attempts by the state to depersonalise religion/spirituality;
4. Reject all and any special laws regarding religion;
5. Reject all attempts by the state to regulate religion, spirituality, dogma, practices, rituals, etc;
6. Reject all attempts by the state to define religion/spirituality;
7. Reject all attempts by the state to define how many followers a religion should have before it is recognised as a religion;
8. Reject all attempts by the state to define belief/spirituality;
9. Reject all attempts by the state to restrict what constitutes sacred writings;
10. Reject all attempts by the state define or legislate what constitutes the clergy, and who may practice as clerics;
11. Reject any form of standardised training for the clergy.”

The Commission’s proposals are not currently binding on the legislature and so do not hold any legal weight, but they may be used as a persuasive influence should the legislature decide to pursue some form of regulation in the future. Would such regulation be constitutional? Under South African Constitutional law, no law may contradict, or be inconsistent with the fundamental rights provided for and protected by the Constitution. Section 15 of Chapter Two of the Constitution reads "Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion."

In Prince v President of the Law Society of the Cape of Good Hope (CC) 2002, the South African Constitutional Court held: “[38] This Court has on two occasions considered the contents of the right to freedom of religion. On each occasion, it has accepted that the right to freedom of religion at least comprehends: (a) the right to entertain the religious beliefs that one chooses to entertain; (b) the right to announce one’s religious beliefs publicly and without fear of reprisal; and (c) the right to manifest such beliefs by worship and practice, teaching and dissemination. Implicit in the right to freedom of religion is the “absence of coercion or restraint.” Thus “freedom of religion may be impaired by measures that force people to act or refrain from acting in a manner contrary to their religious beliefs.” In the absence of credible evidence to the contrary, the allegations made by the appellant which have not been disputed must be accepted. Apart from this, as a general matter, the Court should not be concerned with questions whether, as a matter of religious doctrine, a particular practice is central to the religion. Religion is a matter of faith and belief. The beliefs that believers hold sacred and thus central to their religious faith may strike non-believers as bizarre, illogical or irrational. Human beings may freely believe in what they cannot prove. Yet, that their beliefs are bizarre, illogical or irrational to others or are incapable of scientific proof, does not detract from the fact that these are religious beliefs for the purposes of enjoying the protection guaranteed by the right to freedom of religion. The believers should not be put to the proof of their beliefs or faith. For this reason, it is undesirable for courts to enter into the debate whether a particular practice is central to a religion unless there is a genuine dispute as to the centrality of the practice.” [1]

The Constitutional Court has demonstrated that the right to religion may only be limited in so far as religious acts may be illegal (in the case of Prince, the use of cannabis by a Rastafarian seeking admission as an attorney), but it has said nothing about whether the kind of legislative regulation as proposed by the Commission, would be constitutional or not.

Certainly, no legislation could reasonably deny to any citizen the right to identify what he/she believes is his/her religion, even if it did not meet the criteria suggested by the Commission. To deny any person the right to define their own religious beliefs or religious identity would be inconsistent with the Constitutional Court’s collective decisions on the question of what constitutes religion, religious identity or religious belief.

For now at least, in the absence of State regulation, members of South African Pagan religions need to continue to demonstrate that they are indeed law abiding citizens, who respect the fundamental rights of members and non-members, in the practice of their faiths.


[0] Preliminary-Report-of-the-hearings-on-Commercialization-of-Religion-and-abuse-of-peoples-belief-systems.pdf

[1] Prince v President of the Law Society of the Cape of Good Hope (CC) 2002

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Damon Leff, a Witch - animist and pantheist, is a South African human rights activist / advocate, writer, editor and ceramic artist. He is the owner of and editor-in-chief at Penton Independent Alternative Media (since 1995), a founding member and director of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance, the current managing researcher of Touchstone Advocacy against witch-hunts, a founding executive member of the South African Pagan Council, and owner of MNRVA Pottery. His wish list includes a Bachelor of Laws(LLB). He lives and works on a small-holding in the southern Cape with his life partner Louwrins, two greyhounds, two cats, several chickens and a multitude of healthy and productive Cape honey bees.  


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