Supreme Court Gives Assent to Controversial Conversion Bill

Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court has conveyed to the President and the Speaker of the House that the controversial ‘Prohibition of Forcible Conversions of Religions Bill’ does not contravene the Constitution
( [email protected] ) Aug 18, 2004 10:55 AM EDT

Contrary to earlier reports made by another news source, reports from the Asian Tribune in Sri Lanka indicate that the island nation’s Supreme Court has ruled that the bill proposing to outlaw “unethical conversions” is constitutionally valid and can proceed to a vote in the parliament.

According to the Asian Tribune, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court has conveyed to the President and the Speaker of the House that the bill titled “Prohibition of Forcible Conversions of Religions Bill” published in the Gazette of May 28, 2004 does not contravene the Constitution.

This bill, aimed at preventing unethical conversions gained by tempting the poor with allurements, had received much opposition from the Christian community since it was first proposed by the Jathika Hela Urumya (JHU), a minority party of Buddhist monks. Christians suggested that the bill was an attempt by the Buddhist party to suppress the growth of Christianity following the notable decline of Buddhism and the growth of Christian churches in rural areas.

The churches also objected to the private bill saying that it is in violation of the provisions of the Constitution. As a result, twenty-two petitions challenged the constitutionality of the bill last Tuesday and 13 petitions were presented in support of it. However, a bench of three judges, comprising of Justices T.B.Weerasuriya, Nimal Dissanayake and Raja Fernando, ruled that the bill had not violated the constitution.

The bill will now come up before parliament, which, according to the Asian Tribune, is likely to place the UNP, the leading opposition party, in a dilemma. “For the UNP to command a majority in the House it needs the support of the JHU which consists of Buddhist monks,” the news agency reported.

In a statement made by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) in July, Advocacy Director Tina Lambert wrote, “This is not simply a Christian issue. We want to work with people of other faiths, and of none, who may share a concern for religious liberty for all. If passed, these laws will be deeply damaging to Sri Lanka’s reputation.”

CSW expressed its concern over the bill, stating, "'forcible’ and ‘unethical’ conversions, if they take place, are of course wrong. However, impartial prosecutions in the midst of inter-religious tensions would be difficult to guarantee."

CSW, and Sri Lankan Christians alike, fear that the law will adversely affect the activities of many genuine religious groups, including those providing social and humanitarian services.

Evidence of the divisive nature of the legislation can be found in neighboring India where five states have passed similar laws. As feared, false charges of forced conversions have been brought to the courts.