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Religious freedom is not at stake

This past week long-time African Christian Democratic Party MP Cheryllyn Dudley called for the creation of a multiparty parliamentary committee focused on protecting religious freedom. This issue is becoming a hot topic among conservative politicians the world over, with numerous South African organisations such as Errol Naidoo’s Family Policy Institute (FPI) claiming to champion religious freedom as well.

Naidoo’s organisation claims that it promotes “faith, family and freedom”. It would be more accurate to say that the FPI pursues only one faith and one conception of family, while standing up for unfreedom.

Where the FPI decries the death of the “natural family”, it remains blind to the families that exist (and have always existed) outside of this narrow conception of family. Love, community, belonging and care are powerful and important values. One conception of family destroys the capacity for individuals to experience these values. It also removes the freedom of individuals and already existing families.

Despite FPI’s incessant fear-mongering in respect of religious freedom, these constitutional rights (which all of us share) remain untouched. Religious freedom is not being eroded by any kind of “sexual rights agenda”, as the FPI claims. If anything, the FPI is a testament to the ongoing freedom of right-wing groups.


In this apparently unfree and unfriendly new world, Naidoo is able to host his own television show on DStv. Here, guests are free to discuss conversion therapy, Uganda’s crackdown on gay rights, and right-wing politics. The FPI is even free to send out endless newsletters calling on supporters to fund the FPI’s, and by extension: Naidoo’s, agenda.

Pray tell, where is the oppression?

Perhaps it exists in the family that forces their teenage daughter to attend conversion therapy. Or in Uganda, where LGBTI people have seen their democratic and human rights removed. Maybe it exists in the 29 states in America which allow employers to discriminate against employees on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

Underpinning this gross hypocrisy is a grand conspiracy that there is a “liberal media” (the same one that allowed Jon Qwelane to publish this?) and secular elite promoting the death of God and religious freedom. With this conspiracy comes an insidious war on the civil liberties of individuals — for some “religious freedom” has become a catchall term for the restriction of your rights so as to protect their sensitivities.

Convincing people that they ought to relinquish their rights and freedoms is always difficult, which is why very few dictators politely ask for supreme power. But the right-wing know they can ask you to give up your rights if they package this request in fear and deliver it to you with a catchy label: religious freedom — something very few people want to give up, atheist or believer.

If you are provided with a choice: ban pornography (which you probably don’t even watch, right?) or let the evil humanists advance a “sexual rights agenda”, which threatens you and your children, you’re likely to opt for the former. When the question of relinquishing rights becomes about protecting other rights (imagined or real), and perhaps protecting your family and community, it’s much easier to give up those rights. In fact, it’s much easier to forget about freedom when the political evangelist at your front door is spinning a grand and scary narrative about how the very foundation of your world, which could be your religion or family, could come tumbling down.

Religious freedom can coexist with other rights. And we don’t need a special task team or portfolio committee to protect those rights. It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money, and a waste of elected officials’ time.

We just need a government and society committed to protecting the freedom of each individual to imagine and live a life they value; this means we need to advance the notion that people must have the personal and psychic space to choose how to love, live and worship (or choose not to worship).

It really is that simple.

Image – Screengrab from


  • Thorne Godinho has been a struggling freelance writer, blogger and editor for years. He completed his law degree at the University of Pretoria, and is embarking on an LLM focusing on the intersection between law and democracy at the University of Cape Town where he is a Claude Leon Scholar in Constitutional Governance. Thorne is a committed social liberal. He writes in his personal capacity. Follow him on twitter: @ThorneGo.


  1. 1Zoo1 1Zoo1 10 February 2015

    Religious freedom means you are free to practice your religion, within the law – so no murdering human offerings to the gods etc.

    Religious freedom does not mean that your religious prescripts rule, or that your religion is sacrosanct from those who do not follow it.

    Religion is after all simply a set of ideas and ideals which people use to make sense of the universe, whilst others use science or simply don’t care. Religious freedom does not therefore mean it is beyond criticism, ridicule or other discussion.

    As an aside, what makes a religion a religion? Is it formality of worship and places of worship (schul, church, mosque, temple etc) or numbers which subscribe? Where is the line drawn I wonder?

  2. damonleff damonleff 10 February 2015

    Well said Thorne. ACDP / FPI protecting religious freedom? Better start with minority faiths currently marginalized BY Christians (Dudley included)!

  3. Bryan Christopher Bryan Christopher 11 February 2015

    Thank you for this well-reasoned, informative response to the “religious freedom” debate currently going on across the globe. Your conclusion is spot on.

    You say it brilliantly, “Where the FPI decries the death of the “natural family”, it remains blind to the families that exist (and have always existed) outside of this narrow conception of family.”

    I hope your words bring the oppressed out of the shadows and that the FPI will soon see that GLBT citizens are already a part of the “natural” family.

    Bryan Christopher
    Author, “Hiding from Myself: A Memoir”

  4. rick baker rick baker 11 February 2015

    Agreed. Religious freedom also means freedom from religion. Some of us don’t like the idea of giving up our freedom to some imaginary dictator in the sky.

  5. Darkmore Darkmore 12 February 2015

    Our constitution give our variety of rights. Unfortunately people who are proponents of Religious Freedom think only about their own religious. If I swear myself to a different belief I am regarded as atheist or alien. The only way to go is to acknowledge our differences and tolerate one another. Furthermore we should invest time to study other faiths and or religions

  6. Isabella vd Westhuizen Isabella vd Westhuizen 12 February 2015

    Another article attempting to force people of faith into not displaying or living their faith
    A new persecution of people of faith is emerging and the liberal secularist media i.e. leading the cry

  7. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 14 February 2015

    I wish religion would stay far away from politics! It is a toxic mix. The people who share these ideals are quite welcome to pay for any ‘task team’ they want. It is not the job of government (or the average tax payer) to finance it. It isn’t like these religious leaders are short of money!

  8. Sharon Cox Sharon Cox 15 February 2015

    The ACDP’s Cheryllyn Dudley’s intention for the creation of multiparty parliamentary committee focused on protecting religious freedoms is a circuitous attempt to transcend constitutional accountability. The inclusivity of our country’s equality clause, is fundamental to freedom and existence in a just society.
    Thorne Godinho’s piece in the Mail & Guardian , ‘Religious Freedom is not at Stake’ provides a very clear synopsis of the intentions and consequences of right wing agendas aimed at compromising our equal citizenship, The notion of ‘the family’ is often used by right wing groups as that which is in need of protection.
    Godinho’s analysis points to the diversity of what we consider ‘families’ and transcends hetero-normative , conservative ideas about who belongs and who does not. Advocating for the state not to intervene in the affairs of the church (or any other religious institution) is tantamount to the evasion of the equality. To quote Godinho “for some “religious freedom” has become a catchall term for the restriction of your rights so as to protect their sensitivities”.

    The right wing position (often disguised as ‘fear’ or ‘moral standing’) suggests that South African’s are not equal and/or morally equipped to participate in spiritual practices or religious rituals ;fundamentally undermines the idea of freedom.
    More than ever, now is the time in our political maturity to grasp the full extent of our rights and responsibilities and to start fervently engaging how we access these rights. We cannot allow for narrow interpretations of humanity and belonging to reduce our nationhood. The adoption of our constitution in 1994 was a radical quantum leap from our historical inequalities, 21 years later, our democratic maturity necessarily needs to radically adapt to the promise of our constitution.
    Metropolitan Community Church in Africa

  9. biblebrainz biblebrainz 15 February 2015

    As a Christian I am tired of my fellow Christians playing the victim in order to try to get an unfair advantage. It smacks of dishonesty and brings our religion into disrepute. It is an absolute embarrassment.

    I fail to see how the article above “forces” people of faith into not displaying or living their faith. Allow me to put this in crystal clear and concrete terms for you Isabella: no one is going to force you to marry someone of your own gender, no one is going to force anyone in your family to marry anyone else of the same gender, and no one is going to force you to say you agree with same sex marriage. If you don’t like the idea of same sex marriage, then don’t marry someone of the same sex. Simple. But if you want the right to say that heterosexual marriage is what YOU believe is best (for you and even for others) then you better be prepared to allow others to say something different. And that is what you and your fellow complainers (certainly not a majority of Christians) are having a problem with. It suggests that secretly you are not convinced that you are in fact correct and that you harbour insecurities and doubts about your beliefs – or you would never try to prevent others from voicing different ones. The truth shall prevail – and it certainly does not need dirty tricks, false logic and fear-mongering to protect it.

    And, finally, please recognize the indisputable FACT that many Christians denominations, groups and individual see same gender marriages as perfectly acceptable and good. And also that our numbers are growing steadily.

  10. Pierre Burger Pierre Burger 16 February 2015

    If you think that’s persecution, then I’m afraid you don’t know what that word means.

  11. Guest Guest 22 February 2015

    It is not only religious people but others who are not comfortable with same sex marriages.

  12. biblebrainz biblebrainz 23 February 2015

    Thanks. Yes. I am quite aware of that. I think I mind it more when it comes from Christians though.

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