SDA Church Wins Freedom of Religion Court Case

The Court of Appeal last week ruled that there will be no more Saturday classes for Seventh Day Adventist students in what will be seen as a major victory for the Church against the Ministry of Education. The Seventh Day Adventist Church is a Protestant Christian Denomination distinguished by its observance of Saturday as the Sabbath – a Holy Day in which no intense work is meant to be done because it is the day God chose to rest after the six days of Creation.

The SDA Church had filed a petition in the High Court on the 25th of September 2012 alleging that SDA Students in several high schools were having their freedom of worship violated by being required to attend class, sit for exams and in some cases attend to cleaning duties on Saturdays. The petition further alleged that while some schools did not force SDA students to attend class on Saturday, no make up classes or examinations were being offered to compensate for the students who were not in attendance. Instead, students who missed the Saturday classes and duties were in some cases either suspended or given the option to leave the school altogether if they weren’t willing to adhere to the school’s Saturdays’ program. The Church pointed out that students belonging to the other Christian faiths whose day of worship was on Sunday had been given every opportunity and facility to practice their faith according to their beliefs.

It was therefore the Church’s position that SDA students were being denied the right to practice their faith as guaranteed under Article 32 of the Constitution.
Article 32 deals with the Freedom of Conscience, Religion, Belief and Opinion. It states the following:

  1. Every person has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion.
  2. Every person has the right to either individually or in community with others, in public or in private, to manifest any religion or belief through worship, practice, teaching or observance, including observance of a day of worship.
  3. A person may not be denied access to any institution, employment or facility, or the enjoyment of any right, because of the person’s belief or religion.
  4. A person shall not be compelled to act, or engage in any act, that is contrary to the person’s belief or religion.

However, in a ruling delivered on the 18th of December 2013, Justice Isaac Lenaola disagreed with the Church’s position. The Judge stated that the Saturday Programs were not discriminatory to the SDA students because they were applicable to all students from diverse religious beliefs. He also felt that the schools had already extended reasonable accommodations to the SDA students and that these should be enough to allow them to practice their faith with minimal interference.  While Justice Lenaola agreed that the freedom of religion as stated in Article 32 was absolute, he reiterated that it was also subject to Article 24, which defines the limits to the basic rights and freedoms given in the Constitution. He dismissed the case by concluding that to exempt the Adventist students from the school’s programs would mean granting them extra accommodation, which might end up being cumbersome and chaotic for the schools. It was concluded that any infringements to the students’ rights was therefore reasonable and justifiable under Article 24 of the Constitution.

The Church successfully challenged this decision in the Court of Appeal, winning the case when the a three Judge bench ruled in their favour. Judges Kathurima Mn’oti, William Ouko and Asike Makhandia disagreed with the High Court ruling and asserted that the SDA Students’ rights had indeed been violated. The Court of Appeal ruling boiled down the situation to this... was the failure to accord SDA students a day of worship in accordance with their faith justifiable and reasonable under the limitations stated in Article 24, or was it an infringement of their right to freedom of religion as guaranteed in Article 32.

The following are some of the important points from the Court of Appeal Ruling.

  • Article 32(2) of the Constitution clearly protects every person’s right to the observance of a day of worship.
  • When limiting basic rights and freedoms as outlined in Article 24, the limitation must be contained in law, and even then, only to the extent that it is reasonable and justifiable. There was no proof given that any law existed limiting the right to worship.
  • The overall objective of Article 24 was never to frustrate the rights and basic freedoms of a person, but rather to ensure that when one is practicing their religion, they don’t unduly interfere with others in their exercising of their own religions. The ultimate purpose in the limitation of human rights was still for the sake of protecting those very rights.
  • The SDA put overriding importance to the Sabbath as a hallmark of their Faith. Observing the Sabbath on the Seventh Day from Friday Sunset to Saturday Sunset is the defining characteristic of the Church. Because of this, no reasonable limitation could be placed on them without grossly violating Article 32.
  • In schools with multi faith students, the students should be able to co exist, each practicing their religion, balancing that out with their right to education, while at the same time complying with the schools' rules and regulations. Public schools should not violate the religious freedom of pupils and teachers by imposing religious uniformity on a religiously diverse school population.
  • There is need to actualize the religious rights and freedoms provided in the Constitution by providing laws, regulations and policies that will accommodate various beliefs and practices.

The Court concluded by saying that the Appeal was indeed merited and that the rights of SDA students were being infringed upon. It further directed that an order given by Justice Lenaola in the previous High Court ruling be carried out.  Order (b) of that ruling basically ordered the Cabinet Secretary for Education to put into effect appropriate laws that would obligate public schools to respect the rights of students under Article 32 of the Constitution.

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