23 August 2004
In a ruling handed down last week, the Sri Lankan Supreme Court has determined that two clauses of a proposed anti-conversion bill violate the Constitution.
The Private Member's Bill by the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) party of Buddhist monks, seeking to curtail religious conversions, was challenged in the Supreme Court by Christian and civil rights groups.
In order for the JHU to proceed with the Bill as it stands, it will need to be passed in in Parliament by at least a two thirds majority, and then be approved by a majority of the people in a referendum.
The alternative is for the JHU to amend the offending clauses; in which case the bill will require only a simple majority in Parliament.
The Court ruled that sections 3 and 4(b), violated article 10 of the constitution, which guarantees the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of one's choice.
Sections 3 and 4(b) required anyone wanting to convert to another religion to report to the Divisional Secretary of the area and stipulated a fine and prison sentence for anyone not complying.
Despite the fact that the Court also found fault with other sections in the Bill, and suggested amendments, the remainder of the Bill was deemed constitutional. This has led to concern from Christian and civil rights groups. In particular, the Bill's definitions of conversion by 'allurement' 'force' and 'fraudulent means' are open-ended, and it is feared that all religious conversions will be encompassed by it.
The next step is for the Bill to be referred to a Parliamentary Standing Committee for discussion. It will then be sent to the Legal Draftsman for any amendments or re-drafting, and returned to Parliament for a second reading and finally a vote.
It is not yet clear whether the JHU will remove the offending sections of the Bill or proceed in its present form.
Either way, waiting in the wings is the Government, who, according to reports, are planning to bring in a Bill banning all conversions.
Alexa Papadouris, Advocacy Director of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said, "Whilst CSW is encouraged that parts of the JHU Bill have been deemed unconstitutional, we remain concerned that the Bill and others in the pipeline will simply serve to divide religious communities in Sri Lanka and provoke a climate of distrust and intolerance.
"In an age of religious extremism, we urge Sri Lanka to embrace measures to foster inter-faith tolerance and celebrate religious diversity in Sri Lankan society."
23 August 2004