Separation of religion and state shouldn’t be eroded

The Government of Uganda has for a while sought to “regulate” religious freedoms under the guise of protecting its citizens. 

This has essentially taken the form of the controversial Religious and Faith-Based Organizations (RFBOs) Policy whose proponents are majorly officials in the Office of the President and the Directorate of Ethics and Integrity (DEI) alongside some religious leaders.

However, this policy has serious repercussions in so far as religious freedoms in Uganda are concerned; but first, let us examine the doctrine of separation of religion and state and what this means to an ordinary Ugandan.

Separation of religion and state refers to a phenomenon where all religious communities are equal before the law and are clearly separated from the state. It ensures that government does not show preference to a certain religion and that government does not take away an individual’s right to exercise religion.

With specific reference to the church, separation of church and state would mean that the church cannot rule over the state and the state cannot rule over the church.

The degree of separation may vary but the rationale for the doctrine of separation of religion and state is mainly enhancement of mutual respect, efficacy and freedom of engagement.

Indeed as Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States of America, once stated that when the state intermeddles in matters of religion, there is a risk of emptying the church of its eternal meaning and attributes. The state also reduces the church to a more cynical method of acquiring power.

A close look at the RFBO policy explicitly shows a well-crafted plan to undermine the doctrine of separation of religion and state in so far as state interference and control in RFBO activities and religious affairs is apparent.

In fact, one can rightly say that the policy presents a state/national religion in the offing since it seeks to create a universal religion seemingly following the template of the traditionally recognized religions.

For the benefit of those that have not had the opportunity to internalize the RFBO policy, it gives the state immense power to regulate and control religious affairs right from district level to national level.

The policy gives the state the mandate to directly exercise control over religious groups, to vet, oversee and monitor all religious activities, and the mandate to grant, reject or cancel licence to operate, to set terms and conditions for operation, coupled with the power to determine what should and what should not be taught.

All this is buttressed by power to make further guidelines to operationalize the policy, and who knows? Peradventure the state might spell out further control!

Effectively, this is a policy which not only seeks to grant the state power to undermine the independence of religious leaders and religious institutions, but also seeks to undermine the fundamental freedom of expression of the citizenry who are the ultimate beneficiaries of religious freedoms.

For example, the state will rob the Ugandans of the freedom of conscience and they will no longer have the liberty to choose what or how to believe as the state will ultimately determine what is and what is not acceptable forms of worship despite the fact that faith is independent of reason and matters of faith are deeply personal and close to one’s passion.

Even when true religion or worship presupposes subscription to eternal attributes of a mystical God, the state still seeks to interfere and decide for its citizenry how far one’s faith should go.

For a congregant, there might be far-reaching implications if they wake to the news of closing down their place of worship, the discontinuation of their religious leaders from ministering, alteration of the message they have believed in for years, or being told that apparently they subscribe to an inappropriate religious sect.

For those that believe that a call to leadership for their religious leaders comes from a mundane God, the policy is a nightmare since the state purports to assume this supreme authority under the guise of regulation.

The question is: are Ugandan citizens willing to give away their inherent rights or better still their free individual conscience? Indeed, the distance between religion and state can never be too great.

The state should steer clear of attempting to erode religious freedoms to the roots, and adhere to the fact that under Article 7 of the 1995 Constitution, Uganda shall not adopt a state religion.  

Most importantly, religion is too important to be a government program or a political pageant.


The author is a lawyer and chairperson of the National Christian Students Association (NCSA).

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd