The Karnataka Protection of Right to Religious Freedom Act-2021, which was passed in the state's Legislative Council on Thursday, 15 September, is set to be legally challenged. Speaking to The Quint, Metropolitan Archbishop of Bengaluru, Peter Machado, said, "Christian groups have already challenged the ordinance that has made this a law. Now, we will challenge the entire Act on the grounds of violating Article 25 of the Constitution and also the right to privacy."
After the Bill was passed in the Legislative Assembly in December 2021, the Karnataka government promulgated an ordinance to the same effect in May 2022.
Subsequently, in a petition filed in the High Court of Karnataka, the Bill was challenged on constitutional grounds. The petitioner, Evangelical Fellowship of India, has contended that the ordinance violates six Articles of the Indian Constitution. Archbishop Peter Machado said that the same challenge will now be extended to the Act.
Citizens' Rights Should Be Upheld: Archbishop
When the Bill was tabled in the state's Council, the government had accused some religious groups of alluring marginalised groups to their religions. It was argued by the government that the rights of individuals who fall under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes list were violated by "fraudulent conversions."
Archbishop Peter Machado, however, said:
"This is not about fraudulent conversions. If there are forceful conversions, let the government take action. But the provisions of the Act, most of which are stringent, violate the fundamental rights of citizens. We will challenge these provisions and the Act in its entirety."
The Act does not allow minorities to preach, profess, and propagate their religion, a right ensured under Article 25 of the Constitution, the archbishop reiterated.
'Act Restricts Charity': Peter Machado
As the Act criminalises 'allurement,' leaders of the Christian community have been anxious about possible restrictions that could be imposed on their charitable institutions.
"Anything that is done for the poor and socially disadvantaged sections can be interpreted as an attempt at religious conversion. Institutions including schools, colleges, and hospitals of the Christian church can come under scrutiny for offering charity," Archbishop Machado pointed out.
The Act also restricts people's right to freedom of marriage. "The Act criminalises conversion after marriage. This restricts the rights of women to choose their life partners and their religion," the archbishop said.
As per the Act, individuals who wish to convert to any religion will have to notify the state of the same. These declarations will have to be sent to institutions ranging from the revenue department to the magistrate court.
"The government wants to tangle genuine religious conversion in bureaucratic red tape. The onus is placed on the individual, who wants to exercise their freedom of religion, to prove that they are not 'influenced' by unfair means."Archbishop Peter Machado
'Act Encourages Fringe Elements To Attack Minority Institutions'
As per the Act, anyone can complain against 'forceful' religious conversions, giving vigilantes a free hand to target religious minorities.
"There were attacks on small churches which function out of small rooms and halls because of financial constraints. There were attacks even on established churches, with some fringe elements accusing these institutions of indulging in the propagation of religion," the archbishop alleged.
Minority institutions that are allowed to indulge in religious propagation were also targeted in the recent past. "There were schools which were accused of encouraging Bible learning. Such harmless acts of professing one's religion can be construed as attempts at religious conversion," said Machado.
According to the archbishop, the Act could facilitate "moral and religious policing" by fringe elements. "The fringe groups will have a free hand and the Christian community is very worried about holding even religious congregations," the archbishop said.