Freedom of Religion vs Free Speech

The SA Human Rights Commission declared that the contents of a book called “Die Raadsplan”, by Pastor Willie Smit from the Free State based Living Hope Ministries amount to hate speech, and recommended that the Film and Publications board take steps to remove it from all distribution channels.  “I found the church publication offensive and amounting to hate speech,” said Isaac Mangena, commission spokesman.


The book was investigated after the commission received a complaint in 2010 that the book depicted the white race as divinely ordained and to be superior to and rule over all other races. According to Mangena the commission found the book corroborated the complainant’s assertions to some extent.  Smit believes that by making such utterances he exercised his right to freedom of speech, religion, belief and opinion.

However, the commission held that the publication was racially discriminatory, and claims that the right to freedom of expression did not extend to advocacy of hatred based on race, and that constituted incitement to cause harm.

It has been suggested that we should not allow such censorship to take place, because it will open the door for religious institutions to enact blasphemy laws in which our objection to religious persecution and irrationality will be labelled hate speech.

Does that danger exist? What are the chances that religious persecution could take place in South Africa?

I’m sure you made the argument, or at least seen it be made that you can criticise someone’s religion because it’s just an idea, but you can’t criticise someone simply on the basis of skin colour. Should racial prejudice be allowed just to avoid religions seeking to enact blasphemy laws?

This is one of those cases where religion seeks to transcend the law by claiming that the law also protects religion’s right to break the law. If you claim it’s your religious right to sacrifice virgins on an altar, the law prohibits it. If I fear the enactment of blasphemy laws, I in fact consider allowing it, just to make sure that you don’t push for laws to prohibit me from criticising you. Freedom of religion may not be allowed to infringe other rights.

This isn’t simply about racial prejudice. That still exist in our society, and it’s not illegal, although it’s discouraged. You have the right to your opinions and ideas, however prejudiced it may be. You don’t have the right to discriminate against others because of your prejudice. What is not allowed is inciting hatred, or any harmful intent. This case certainly wasn’t about religion, even if religion was used in an attempt to defend it.

Inciting racial hatred is an offence in South Africa, and it’s not taken lightly. Even the more casual observer is aware of SA’s recent history. It’s not the first time somebody got into trouble for racial hate speech, black or white, and unfortunately it won’t be the last, although it’s the first involving religion that I’m aware of.

The old Apartheid-era blasphemy laws haven’t been scrapped yet, but it’s not enforced, because under the new constitution it would be found unconstitutional. Even so, while I’m confident that I may get away with criticising any religion, whether they like it or not, I don’t think the law will take kindly to me inciting hatred of someone based on his religious beliefs. Not that I would. That’s the moment you cross the line from “not tolerating intolerance” to being intolerant yourself, and you shouldn’t be tolerated. Just like those who encourage racial intolerance shouldn’t be tolerated.

It’s a bit like the argument that criticising Islam is racist. Of course it’s not. But making racist statements about Arabs, and thinking that it is fine because they are Muslim and their religion shouldn’t be tolerated, well, that’s racist.

Besides, even though I haven’t come across any official statements yet, I’m fairly certain most religious organisation would support this outcome. Not because they hope to enact blasphemy laws, but because they tend to take a stand against racial prejudice.

Cor Rautenbach
Atheist Movement of South Africa

One thought on “Freedom of Religion vs Free Speech

  1. Pingback: Does religion have a monopoly on morality? | Atheism Africa

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