02 February 2018
Public lecture focuses on diversity as foundation for equality
Prof Shaun de Freitas (Department of Public Law), Dr Mwiza Nkhatha (Postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Human Rights), Prof Iain Benson and Prof Jan Pretorius (Centre for Human Rights)

The Free State Centre for Human Rights at the University of the Free State (UFS) held a public lecture at the Bloemfontein Campus on 30 January 2018 titled Putting religion in brackets: the importance of diversity in the public square by Prof Iain T Benson, Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney, Australia, and, for the past seven years, extraordinary Professor of Law at the UFS.

Conflict between religion and modernity

According to Prof Benson, there have been attempts to exclude so-called old-fashioned ideas from modernity. He gave examples of political and moral objections to public money being spent on religious education by schools, and the prevalence of terminology that stigmatises alternative opinions that may be based on religion, such as “homophobia”. He also referred to an instance in which the accreditation of a Canadian Christian university was challenged because its covenant explicitly rejected certain practices, such as extramarital relationships and same-sex marriage – the objections centred on an institution with such views receiving public benefits.

The challenge of inclusion in a growing secular society
Last year, a South African court found that schools may not promote a single faith to the exclusion of others. “According to the constitution, we have the right to hold religious beliefs. However, there are limitations on religious practices. Each society must draw a line,” he said. In the South African case, he explained, “the court rejected a blanket exclusion of religion in schools. If religion is a right, how can it be voted out of existence?”

Prof Benson argued that the ideology of secularism, the separation of church and state, is making inroads into how we understand religion. If agnostic or atheist viewpoints are accepted in the public sphere, it should not mean that religious beliefs should be abolished. “A diversity of beliefs should be accommodated and every citizen, whether religious or not, may be a part of public life,” he said. He concluded by saying that we lived in a particularly difficult time for a religious believer in the public sphere.