On August 17, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court announced its ruling to the parliamentary speaker on the proposed “Prohibition of Forcible Conversions Bill.” While some local news agencies reported that the bill was rejected after being ruled unconstitutional, others reported that the bill was accepted and passed to the Sri Lankan parliament. However, according to a recent release from the Voice of the Martyrs, both reports are supposedly true, although incomplete.
According to the Voice of the Martyrs, the court determined that Sections 3 and 4(b) of the proposed bill violated Article 10 of the country’s constitution that “guarantees the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of one's choice."
To become law in its present form, the bill would, thus, require a two-thirds majority vote of the parliament, as well as a national referendum. However, the court also added that if the offending Sections were deleted, the Bill would be consistent with Article 10 and would not require the two-thirds majority and referendum. Section 3 of the proposed bill requires a person who is converting from one religion to another and any person performing or involved in a "conversion ceremony" to report to the Divisional Secretary of the area. Section 4(b) stipulated punishments of a fine and prison term for any person failing to comply with Section 3.
The court further recommended revisions to Sections 4(a) and 5 of the bill relating to institution of proceedings against an accused. The Supreme Court recommended that action for offenses against the bill should be instituted in accordance with the provisions of Section 136 of the Criminal Procedure Code Act and subject to the written sanction of the Attorney General. As written, the bill allows categories of persons including "any interested person" to institute proceedings in a Magistrate's court, without the sanction of the Attorney General.
In the ruling, Sections 8(a) and 8(c) concerning the definition of "allurement" and "force" remain as they are, but the Supreme Court suggested the interpolation of the words "for the purpose of converting a person from one religion to another" to bring in the element of intentional temptation or force. Similarly, the definition of "fraudulent means" in Section 8(d) remains the same, but the court suggested that the words "misrepresentation or other fraudulent means" should read as "willful misrepresentation or other fraudulent means."
In their analysis of the Supreme Court's ruling, The National Christian Evangelical Christian Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) expressed their continued concern about certain provisions of the bill, including the extended means given to the definitions of the words "allurement," "force" and "fraudulent means" under Section 8. For example, the word "force" is defined to include not only physical force and harm but also "threat of religious displeasure". Additionally, NCEASL states that Section 2 is too wide in its scope, as it makes even an "attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise..." an offense.
According to parliamentary procedure, the bill will now go to a Parliamentary Standing Committee for discussion. It will then be sent to the Legal Draftsman for any amendments /re-drafting. This will be followed by the second reading in Parliament, and then the voting.
Now, the Jathika Hela Urumya (JHU), which introduced the bill, may choose to accept the Supreme Court determination and proceed with a suitably amended version of the bill, in which case, the bill would require only a simple majority. This process could take several months. They may also choose to proceed with the bill in its present form, seeking a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament and a referendum of the people.
This proposed legislation is one of two anti-conversion bills being brought to the Sri Lankan parliament. The other was introduced to the cabinet by Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, the government's Minister of Buddha Sasana and may come before parliament. A copy of both proposed bills are available online at http://www.srilankanchristians.com/legislation.html.
Sources for VOM in Sri Lanka are continuing to monitor the situation and will give more details and the implications of this ruling as they become available. In the meantime, VOM has requested for the prayers of Christians worldwide.