The Ministerial Leaders for Christian Rights, a voluntary association of 100 church leaders, said the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill prejudiced the church.
They viewed it as “effectively silencing the church from speaking on sensitive issues that affect their communities on a social development and moral basis”.
Spokesperson Pastor Lazarus Pillay on Tuesday said they expected more than a million signatures on a petition they were submitting to the Ministry of Justice objecting to the bill.
Coming on the heels of racial slurs on social media, the bill was announced by Justice Minister Michael Masutha in October last year.
Its purpose is to “give effect to the constitution and international human rights instruments concerning racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance”
However, it further states that persons are guilty of hate speech if they intentionally communicate, advocate or are threatening or insulting towards a person or group based on race, gender or sex, which among others includes intersex, sexual orientation and gender identity.
“The Bible speaks against homosexuality. As much as we embrace individual constitutional freedoms, when it comes to the church, we address our congregations based on the scriptures and we are very concerned that it could be misinterpreted as hate speech,” said Pillay.
He said not being able to speak against issues which “eroded the moral fibre of society” would have a negative impact on the churches, which were there to guide people on living “upright moral lives”.
Speaking for transgender rights group Gender DynamiX, Sivu Siwisa said they recognised the role of the church in societies and respected everyone’s right to religious beliefs, as long as those beliefs were not harmful and did not infringe on the rights of others to “exist as who they are”.
“For religious leaders to preach homosexuality as improper or unacceptable puts the lives of many LGBTIAPQ+ at risk and promotes and normalises hate and discrimination, which may directly or indirectly result in hate crimes. In a country like South Africa, with a staggering number of LGBTIAPQ+ persons being murdered because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, it is important to caution religious leaders against promoting hate and intolerance in any way,” said Siwisa.
A conviction for hate speech meant a fine and/or a maximum three years’ imprisonment for a first time offence.
The sentence for a subsequent conviction could be up to 10 years.
Michael Swain, the executive director of Freedom of Religion South Africa, described these penalties as “draconian in their severity”.
“The Bible and the Qur’an have clear texts that would be seen by the LGBTI community as disparaging. Who is to say what is acceptable and what is offensive, that is very subjective.”
Swain, however, warned that religious freedom should not be used as “a shield behind which to hide bigotry”. He also questioned how effective the law would be in changing the attitudes of society, saying criminalisation had no redemptive penalty but would rather have a polarising effect.
This was echoed by Nonhlanhla Mkhize, an LGBTI activist and director of the Durban Lesbian and Gay Community and Health Centre.
“The challenge is that the bill is attempting to legislate behaviour. Of course it will be difficult because people are socialised to view the world in a particular way. Religious leaders, too, are groomed in a certain way of thinking.”
She believes the bill strikes a balance between their right to teach what is in their religious texts while – in exercising that right – not rendering others to feel “small, irrelevant or dehumanised, which unfortunately is what has been experienced by members of the LGBTI communities in churches”.
Mkhize is part of a government and civil society-led KZN task team on hate crimes that met with religious leaders last year.
She said religious leaders could not expect to scream hate and then use the pulpit to absolve themselves of responsibility.
“Christianity and most religions speak against causing harm or dehumanising people, so the law is not asking them to do anything new.
“It is just asking them to be true to their own doctrines, which teach love thy neighbour, respect others and not to judge because only God can judge another person.”
The period for submission of comment on the bill has been extended to January 31.