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How the JHU Anti-Conversion Law Violates Fundamental Freedoms

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by R.M.B. Senanayake

The question whether one person has a right to convert another to one's religion must clearly be answered in the negative. However a connected question is whether one person may seek to convert another. Here the answer is yes because it arises from the freedom of expression and is specified in the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights Article 18. The right of free expression applies to religious truths and religious values too. People are all the time seeking to express their views to others and expect to convert them to their social, economic, political views.

Freedom of Expression extends to religious truths and values too

Scientists who publish papers putting forward their theories are seeking to change the views of fellow scientists. Einstein spoke and wrote about his theory of relativity to diverse groups of scientists in order to convince them about the truth or validity of his theory as a better explanation than Newton's gravitation theory. If people did not believe that there is a certain escape velocity beyond which the object will not fall to the ground there would not have been space travel developed. Galileo put forward his theories about the universe and the Church opposed them and sought to suppress him from popularising his new ideas. A website on freedom states thus "The freedom to convince another over spiritual or religious questions, to have that person accept new ideas and beliefs is no different to the freedom to convince a person in an argument or discussion over any subject, such as the validity of a scientific theory, the qualities of a work of art or a political manifesto."

The media are giving expression to diverse views of people who think their viewpoint is right and want to convert others to their viewpoint. It's the same with spiritual and religious ideas.

A law against pornography can be used to suppress the freedom of artistic expression. A law against sedition can be used to suppress any criticism of the State, which means the government of the day. So a law against religious conversion can become a law against religious freedom and freedom of expression.

The freedom of expression includes the right to receive information called the freedom to receive information which is a corollary for it is useless having the right to speak if others don't have the right to hear or listen to what is spoken. "... So to speak to people with a view to convert them to one's religious beliefs flows from the guarantee of freedom of thought and freedom of opinion and expression. It is an example of the manifestation or exercise of these freedoms and without freedom to debate to dispute and to persuade people to agree with one another, there can be no democracy. Democracy assumes for its working that there is the expression of different views and that competition between ideas & beliefs will bring about clarity of issues and the truth in so far as it is ascertainable. There can be no democracy without freedom of expression. To pass laws to prevent a person seeking to convince another about religious ideas and beliefs is to violate the person's freedom of expression. To quote from one historical document "all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities." Human exchange apart from such objectives as to entertain the listeners is directed at changing the hearer's opinions. Without such motive to change others minds, human exchange would be nullified as would democratic life itself. Without debate there can be no democracy. A Korean was accused of "espionage" by the North Korean government for distributing leaflets critical of the government. He appealed to the Human Rights Committee of the UN, which held that it violated Art. 19 of the ICPPR . The proposed Bill violates Article 19 relating to the freedom of expression, which is also provided under our Constitution. " (See the web site of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. WWW.BecketFund.Org)

Right to privacy of religious belief

Every individual has a right of privacy in matters of religion and cannot be called upon to disclose his religon or beliefs if he doesn't wish to do so. The JHU Bill violates this right by asking converts to be registered with the authorities. So it is a violation of the right to privacy guaranteed in the International Covenants and Declarations. " No one can be compelled to reveal his thoughts or adherence to a religion or belief." (para.3)

Offer of material inducements to convert others

Although the proposed Bill is titled "Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion" it includes conversion by allurement or by fraudulent means and these terms are defined very widely. International Covenants allow only the prohibition of conversion by "Coercion". This Bill goes beyond it.

A material inducement cannot bring about a permanent conversion. It can only lead to an outward conformity to some religious practice of the religion he adopts which he is free to discard at any time. The philosopher Locke pointed this out in his Essay on Toleration. Benjamin Franklin stated that a person converted against his will is of the same opinion still.

Nor is possible for any state official to determine the innermost motives and thoughts of such an individual. This Bill merely gives the opportunity to any person with a personal grudge to level charges against another that he attempted to convert him through the offer of a material inducement.
How can it be the business of the State to inquire into the motives an individual changes his religion or to require that a person who converts should inform the State about it. Religion is a private matter of the individual. Tomorrow the government can bring a law to inquire into and punish those who change their political party for material inducements.

Is it necessary for an individual who changes his religion because of a material inducement given to him by the proselytiser, to bring forward charges against him for using material inducement to convert him? He can simply give up the religion he adopted keeping the material inducement as well. Is there therefore a reason for the creation of a new criminal offence of conversion by allurement or fraudulent conversion except to ban all conversions, a fundamental right of an individual enshrined in our Constitution and in International Covenants to which the Government is a party?

Exploitation of the poor Buddhists

Buddhist activists say that the poor are being exploited and induced to change their beliefs by the offer of material inducements. Exploitation of others weakness is a fact of life. It happens in many spheres. What is the remedy? In the fifties the argument was levelled against the denominational schools that they were converting Buddhist children to Christianity while providing them with education. What was the remedy suggested by the activists? To take over the denominational schools. Now the argument is that the welfare institutions are being used by the Christians to convert the inmates of such institutions. So should these institutions confine themselves to looking after only their own co-religionists?

There are also allegations that money is being given to Buddhists to convert to Christianity. A person who extends charity on condition that the receiver should convert to his religion has no way of enforcing such condition. But if the Buddhists insist then Christian institutions may have to give up charity to Buddhists. This may well be the net result of passing the JHU Bill. Those Christians who indulge in charitable works after this law, will be exposed to being charged by persons hostile to them for whatever reason even to pay off personal grudges as in Pakistan. These institutions will be forced to confine their activities to Christians only. But even that will not solve the alleged problem since Buddhists seeking admission could convert before and then seek entry to such institutions. So what is a feasible solution? Is it to prohibit charity and material inducements to Buddhists. Muslims who donate money to the poor, known as zakat, could also be punished under the Proposed Laws if a recipient of aid from a Muslim organization consequently converted.

Why do only the Christians oppose the Bill?

Those who champion this law ask why is it that only the Christians oppose this law. Christians have throughout history opposed any infringements on the freedom of conscience. In fact freedom of conscience was recognised as a human right only because the Christians under the Roman Empire refused to worship the Emperor or the Roman Gods. They repeated such defiance in Japan when during the 1930s they were called upon to worship the Emperor and demonstrate their loyalty to Japan. In both cases they had to pay for it with their lives. According to Arnold Toynbee the fundamental freedom of expression originated in the religious sphere and was extended to secular life only subsequently. Is there any reference to such freedom in the East?

Right to religious freedom applies to all religions- old or new.

The right of religious freedom applies not only to the traditional religion or to the religion of the majority. It applies to all. If I were to start a new religion my followers too would be entitled to such a right. But the present climate of the country is to express hostility to the very existence or legal recognition of a new religion or religious group. Wasn't the monk who sought to introduce Mahayana Buddhism hounded out?

What can be done to resolve the religious tension?

Over a hundred churches have been attacked and there is considerable tension. It is necessary to dampen such tensions. But the public must understand the complexity of the issue. What is ethical and unethical can mean different things to different people. Buddhists think of religious conversion as a very rational process where the person who converts reasons out and finds out the truth for himself. But no religious belief of any religion can be proved by reason alone. Dr. Nalin De Silva would even say there is no objective truth and that truth is subjective. This is the post-modernist view

According to Christians, religious conversions can be feigned but a genuine conversion is divinely inspired. Christians appeal to the psychological conditions of man such as his proneness to evil and the need for forgiveness. People look upon misfortune as due to guilt even if it is random in nature or past karma as Buddhism would have it. "

They are averse to situations where reason cannot provide an answer. So they need a belief, some belief or other- more than they need a correct belief. Christianity is losing its hold in the West but newer cults like the New Age & Buddhism, are taking their place. A similar situation is there here too. So new religions seem attractive to people for whom the traditional religion loses appeal. But this does not mean that the old religion will disappear. Buddha gave up Hinduism but Hinduism continues. There was the Reformation in Europe but new adherents to the Catholic Church continue.

Christians say any person can experience the power of prayer and transform his life through Jesus Christ. They appeal to personal experience with the divine. This may be illusory and wishful thinking, "Religious apprehension is caught not taught," says T.S. Elliott. There is a way of looking at the world and living in the world, which is Christian and those who live such an experience seem to influence others to embrace Christianity. I suppose it's the same with Buddhism. So conversion is not a process of rational argument. A lot of people hold on to their religious beliefs not out of conviction but out of habit. We have a religious conception of nationalism which sees no distinction between religion and culture as stated by Dr. Nalin De Silva. So people continue to be Buddhist also because of nationalism.

It is difficult for different religions to agree on what is ethical and unethical in the matter of conversions. People can change their convictions not only on religious matters but also on social, economic or political matters, for a variety of reasons. They may not even have genuine convictions and may pretend to have them. It is not possible for the government or for any one else to pry into the inner thoughts or motives of a person who changes his views on any matter- be it religion or social or political. These Anti-Conversion Laws create a new criminal offence based on the mental condition of the preacher or person influencing the convert with the deed attached to it which he is not responsible for - the deed being the change of conviction or pretended change of the convert. The giving of money or other benefit to some one in need cannot be prima facie a bad deed. Can charity be outlawed. How does one judge the motive of the person giving charity ? From the words accompanying it? Say he suggests that the would-be convert change his religion. Can these words constitute a criminal offence merely because it is accompanied by charity. The relevant question is whether the money induced the person to convert or not. Only the convert can answer this.

Good deeds can be out of bad motives and bad deeds sometimes out of good motives. Giving money or providing a free service to some one is prima facie not bad deeds. Should there be laws against good deeds even if they are out of bad motives, motives that can only be inferred or to go by the testimony of a self-interested convert or a third party.. If the motive is to be taken into account for what is prima facie a good deed, what if the principle is extended to other spheres. Many people think Socialism is good but what if it is to be brought about by violent revolution. Would it then be justifiable to ban the propagation of Communist ideology as Mussolini did? What if one wants to be a follower of Sai Baba instead of the Buddha? Would not this law stand in the way?

Under this Law, Christians will feel it unsafe to participate in any religious ceremony where non-Christians are present. Even those who arrange the flowers at a religious ceremony where non-Christians are present would be exposed to a criminal charge.

The law may also have detrimental affects on the economic well being and livelihood of the poor and disabled who are now being looked after in institutions run by the Christians. It may also cause religiously run facilities that provide necessary food and health services to the poor to shut down.

A Religious Relations Board

Although there should be no legislation against conversions there should be a statutory body consisting of eminent impartial men who could be appointed to a body like the Race Relations Board in UK. It could be a Religious Relations Board, which could inquire into complaints on allegations of improper practices indulged in by persons to convert others and make its rulings on individual cases after hearing both parties, respecting the rules of natural justice.

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