News Release

BYU professor speaks on religious freedom at South African conference

Religious Freedom in Focus

Professor Brett G. Scharffs of the BYU International Centre for Law and Religion Studies has addressed the CRL Commission’s 4th National Consultative Conference in Pretoria South Africa.

The Conference, which is held every five years, is a constitutionally mandated gathering of key stakeholders to chart the course for the upcoming five-year term of The Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission).

The CRL Right Commission is currently grappling with bringing order in the religious sector which is confronted by a rising tide of abuses of congregants by illicit pastors and mushroom Churches in the name of religion.

As a special contributor to the Conference, Scharffs presided over a conference commission that was tasked with discussing: “Possibilities of and challenges to protecting both religious freedom and human dignity”.


The backdrop for Scharffs' presentation at the conference is the clamor for a comprehensive response by government, including calls for the introduction of measures that would require the registration of religious practioners, a code of conduct and a peer review mechanism.

However, Scharffs said that as a scholar who studies law and religion from a comparative and international law perspective, there were three basic pillars that should underpin efforts to stem the apparent abuses in the religious sector.

Those pillars, he said were already clearly articulated in the constitution of South Africa: Freedom, Equality and Human Dignity.

"I appreciate the opportunity to participate in this conference, although I am very mindful that I am here as a foreigner, and not as an expert on South Africa. Despite my limited perspective, I believe that everything South Africa needs to have a successful and productive relationship between religion (both religious groups and religious people) and the state (both national and local) is found in one document," Scharffs said in his remarks.

In speaking about freedom, Scharffs said the principle suggested that "when it comes to religion, we should begin with a presumption for freedom." On equality, he said the principle highlighted "the importance of equal treatment, including equal protection under law."

Regarding human dignity, Scharffs said the principle recognized "the inherent, inalienable value of each person. From a Christian perspective, dignity is grounded on the idea that we are all created in the image of God. But human dignity is a concept that appears in many religious and non-religious systems of thought."

During the conference Scharffs briefly met with the South African Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Hon. Zweli Mkhize, whose department oversees the work of the CRL Rights Commission. In his keynote address, the minister reiterated the need to stop abuses and the exploitation of congregants.

"No person should be put at risk in the name of religion," he told the conference, adding that "the abuses must be stopped without impeding religious freedom."

The conference resolved to give the CRL Rights Commission more scope to come up with mechanisms that will ensure accountability and oversight of the religious sector, starting with development of a framework for the registration of religious practioners as well as the development of a peer review mechanism. Both measures are poised to face opposition from those who fear that they could curtail freedom of religion.

Style Guide Note:When reporting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please use the complete name of the Church in the first reference. For more information on the use of the name of the Church, go to our online Style Guide.