PROVO — Several years ago, a small group of academics and religious leaders began drafting an outline for what they thought freedom of religion should look like in South Africa. The country's constitution, while healthy and vibrant, said little about the fundamental right, only that "everyone has the right to freedom of religion."
"We don't want to wait on government to give content to a particular right," said Rassie Malherbe, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, and one of the original drafters of the charter. "We should take the initiative to give content to what we believe."
With that, the South African Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms was born, and quickly grew as the broader religious community, including the LDS Church, offered support and suggestions. Nearly 70 percent of the country is Christian, and the rest adhere to traditional African religions, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism.
After several revisions, the document is now ready for public endorsement, which will happen at a ceremony on Oct. 21. The religions will stand together, "speak with one voice" and ask the government to enact the charter into law, a process allowed and even encouraged by their current constitution, said Malherbe who shared the charter this week during BYU's 17th annual International Law and Religion Symposium.
The charter would protect an individual's right to believe and make choices according to their convictions, a right to change their faith, and a right to refuse to perform certain duties or assist in certain activities that violate those beliefs.
If passed into law, South Africans could expect impartiality and protection from the state in regards to their religion and a right to gather to observe their beliefs.
The charter would also ensure freedom of expression regarding religion, and a right of citizens to be educated or to educate their children in accordance with religious or philosophical convictions.
While the current religious/political climate in South Africa is good, Malherbe emphasized that freedom of religion is a fragile right.
"The relationship between state and religion can change overnight," he said. "We wanted to be prepared, to act proactively to put something in place, and not wait for trouble and then try to put something in place."