Karnataka’s anti-conversion ordinance, which was promulgated in May 2022, is currently up for a constitutional challenge in the state’s high court.
As per a writ petition filed by a collective of Christian missionaries, several provisions of Karnataka Right to Freedom of Religion Ordinance are violative of rights guaranteed under the Articles 14, 15, 19, 21, 25, and 30 of the Indian Constitution.
According to the writ, which was admitted on 22 July, the ordinance violates the right to equality before law, right to freedom of conscience and right to profess, propagate and practice one’s religion. It also strips the protection from discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, the writ has claimed.
According to the writ, the ordinance violates the right to protection of life and personal liberty. It violates the right to freedom of speech and expression, right to carry out a trade or business of one’s choice, and right of minorities to establish and administer educational institutions.
The writ was first filed in May by Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), even as Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai claimed at the World Economic Forum that the ordinance will not affect Karnataka's growth. The writ was refiled with amendments in July.
Admitting the writ, the high court has asked for a response from the Karnataka government. In Karnataka, the Christian leaders have been opposing the anti-conversion law, arguing the ordinance is discriminatory.
Article 21 and 25: 'Propagation of Religion Is Essential Religious Practice for Christianity'
As per the writ, under the guise of enforcing public order, the ordinance has “watered down” Article 25, which ensures the right to freedom of religion. Similar to the argument in the writ petitions that challenged the state’s ban on hijab in educational institutions, the anti-conversion writ has contended that propagation of religion is an "essential religious practice for Christianity."
While the ordinance has provisions to monitor proselytisation using revenue and police departments in each district in the state, the writ also contends that the right to profess one’s religion is an extension of the right to freedom of conscience.
The ordinance has vaguely defined several terms including “allurement, coercion, and undue influence,” making it possible to persecute people “professing, propagating and practicing proselytising religions in Karnataka.”
Violating Article 21 of the Constitution, the ordinance infringes on the right to marry, the right to privacy, and the right to personal autonomy, the writ argues. The ordinance makes an assumption of guilt instead of innocence, the writ says. While under provisions of the legal system in India a person is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty, the ordinance presumes that those who proselytise are guilty to begin with.
The writ reads-
“The impugned ordinance places the burden on individuals to justify personal decisions taken by them for the state's approval and that is constitutionally repugnant and against a citizen’s right to freely exercise his/her freedom of choice.”
The writ has further challenged the ordinance under four more articles of the constitution.
Article 14, 15, 19, and 30: 'Ordinance Discriminatory on Several Counts'
As per hostile discrimination and manifest arbitrariness tests, the ordinance does not treat everyone equally under the law, the writ submits.
“The state of Karnataka has no justification to imply how re-conversions cannot happen through the same means and methods. Therefore, treating ‘convertor’ and ‘re-convertor’ differently is squarely violative of Article 14 of the Constitution of India.”Writ Petition
Further, the ordinance presumes that all economically weak, marginalised, and privileged women are susceptible to conversion. The ordinance stereotypes and discriminates women and is hence violative of Article 15, the writ has argued.
“It will further the harmful cause of stereotyping women and leave them with no agency of their body and mind. A stereotypical attitude of a particular sex shall not hold legitimate claims under the Constitution of India.”Writ Petition
As the ordinance seeks to penalise those who express their opinion about their religion, it violates Article 19(1)(a), the writ says. Moreover, the writ adds that the government plans to penalise whole institutions for the actions of individuals who proselytise. Such provisions violate the right to do business and also the right of minorities to establish and run institutions.
Christian leaders in Karnataka have been arguing that the Bharatiya Janata Party's state government wants to prevent them from offering aid to non-Christians. The Archbishop of Karnataka, Peter Machado, has been at the forefront of protests against the anti-conversion law.
What Does the Writ Want?
In the writ petition, Evangelical Fellowship of India has requested the court to strike down several provisions of the bill for being unconstitutional. The petition has also requested the court to stay around a dozen sections of the ordinance.
The writ reads-
“Further, the provisions of the impugned ordinance are causing grave prejudice and irreparable harm to the society at large of the Karnataka state. The respondents implementing such laws need to ensure that these do not curb one’s Fundamental Rights or hamper the national integration. Instead, these laws need to strike a balance between freedoms and malafide conversions.”