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It is not uncommon to hear government officials publicly refer to their religion. People respond differently when, for example, the Mayor points learners to the sovereignty of God with reference to their studies for matric examinations.
Is it constitutional for an elected public official to issue official media statements wherein he or she invokes the name of God? To answer this perhaps complex question involves careful consideration of many constitutional and legal points and aspects of our law. However, only some points will be looked at here.
‘Separation of church and state’ is a phrase commonly thrown around. However, even though our Constitution has been described as one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, we do not follow the typical American model.
Instead, we adhere to the co-operation model, where the church and the state co-operate. For example, section 15(2) of the Constitution permits religious observances at state or state-aided institutions, subject to certain conditions.
Indeed, the preamble of our Constitution itself asks for the protection and blessing of God on the people of South Africa. The provincial constitution of the Western Cape uniquely goes one step further and declares, ‘humble submission to Almighty God’.
Most importantly, section 15(1) of the Constitution states that, ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion.’
Even so, some argue that statements by public officials should be neutral. It should not favour any religious belief.
Dr Prof. Iain Benson, a legal philosopher, writer and legal consultant whose works have been cited by the Constitutional Court of South Africa & the Supreme Court of Canada, writes that all human beings have beliefs and faith—what differs is the content of their beliefs.
To argue that the public sphere should be neutral is in itself based on a non-neutral belief. Hence, why should ‘belief in neutrality’ trump ‘belief in God’?
Her Worship, the Mayor, is well within her rights to refer to her sincerely-held religious beliefs in public statements. Not only is it in line with freedom of religion, it also indicates that she, hopefully, does not limit her religious beliefs to the four corners of a church wall.