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Buddhism – ‘Foremost Place’ vs. ‘State Religion’

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Roshini Wickremesinhe

Sri Lanka ’s Constitution contains a separate chapter on Buddhism. This chapter contains of Article 9, which reads “The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Article 10 and 14 (1) (e)”. (emphasis added). While this provision grants Buddhism special status and State patronage, it stops short of designating any religion as the State religion.

Following the Supreme Court determination regarding the Proposed Bill on Prohibition of Forcible Conversion, Buddhists have expressed dissatisfaction with the Constitutional provision. Some accuse the government of shirking its responsibility to protect and foster Buddhism, while others are of the view that Article 9 is ineffective and the term ‘foremost place’ is vague.

In early September, the Jathika Hela Urumaya made public their intention to amend the Constitution, making Buddhism the State religion.  A draft Act known as the 18th Amendment, was prepared to this effect. It was subsequently published in the government Gazette of 29th October 2004, as the 19th Amendment.

Certain clauses in the proposed 19th Amendment raise concerns of religious freedom and equality.
Article 9.1 – “The Official Religion of the Republic is Buddhism. Other forms of religions and worship may be practiced in peace and harmony with Buddha Sasana”
Article 9.2 – “All inhabitants of the Republic shall have the right to free exercise of their worship. The exercise of worship shall not contravene public order or offend morals”

These clauses impose fetters on the freedom of worship of non-Buddhists, where it is made subject to practice “in peace and harmony with Buddha Sasana” and also subject to “public order and morals”. This is in contrast to the absolute right to freedom of religion granted under Article 10 of the Constitution; “every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”. This is an absolute right, which cannot be restricted under any circumstances.

The fundamental right governing the freedom to manifest one’s religion in worship, observance, practice and teaching as enshrined in Article 14 (1) (e), are subject to the proviso in Article 15 (7), which imposes restrictions on these rights in the interest of national security, public order, health and morals.

Article 9.5 of the proposed Amendment stipulates that it is prohibited “To convert Buddhist into other forms of worship or to spread other forms of worship among the Buddhists”. This clause undermines the religious freedom of Buddhists and violates the absolute freedom of religion granted to all citizens under Article 10.

It would seem that the 19th Amendment aims to achieve much more than Buddhism being declared the State religion; it is an effective and far more draconian alternative to the anti- conversion Bill.

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