Bills threaten religious freedom – lawyer

Smaller churches risk losing freedom of religion protections provided for under Samoa's Constitution, if three bills proposing constitutional changes to the structure of the Judiciary become law.

The bills in question are the Constitution Amendment Bill 2020, Lands and Titles Court Bill 2020 and Judicature Bill 2020.

During an interview with the Samoa Observer, senior lawyer, Matafeo George Latu, of Latu Lawyers,  said it's “the smaller, newer churches” that would be impacted.

In some villages, new churches are prohibited from being set up. Village Councils require people attending these other churches to worship outside the village. In some cases, families have been banned and properties torched as a result of disagreements between the villages and families.

In those instances, Matafeo said there have been cases, where people have taken their complaints regarding the infringement of their fundamental right to freely choose and exercise their religion, to the Supreme Court and won.

But the lawyer said the bills will change that as villagers who feel that their fundamental rights are violated will not be able to appeal these matters in the Supreme Court.

“We are church people,” Matafeo said. “And I know that our people will take an interest in this – our fundamental human right to worship.”

Samoans want to be able to choose their own church and worship how they please, added Matafeo.

There have been traditional village leaders who previously banned certain churches from their villages.

“It doesn’t happen often but it has happened,” he said.

In justifying the bills, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi said the Constitution favours individual rights over communal rights, and added that individual rights is "palagi thinking" that came from Great Britain.

But Matafeo disagreed with the argument put forward by the Prime Minister.

“I don’t think this is right. Who is the Samoan who does not want to be involved in this fundamental right?,” he said.

“Freedom of religion has been called palagi but all Samoans will have a keen interest in this. The churches who should worry are the smaller Churches.”

He then pointed to the Seventh Day Adventists (S.D.A.), and indicated that although the local following of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (L.D.S.) has grown, Matafeo said, they could be included.

Charismatic churches, including the Assemblies of God, could also be affected. 

“These churches have cause to be concerned with these bills,” he said.

In villages, leaders often come to a point where they say: there are enough churches.

“In some villages, they might say ‘okay three churches that’s enough.’ They might have Ekalesia Faapotopotoga Kerisiano Samoa (EFKS), Methodist, the Catholic Church or the Mormon Church and they will say: that is enough churches,” Matafeo explained.

“And then when other Churches like Assembly or S.D.A. come in, they might say this is enough churches. That’s the impact and you probably won’t get the protection that you do now.”

Samoa’s freedom of religion law is modeled on that of the United States of America, he added.

About 11 or 12 of America's fundamental human rights – which were included in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights – were adopted and placed in Samoa’s Constitution, Matafeo told the Samoa Observer.

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