This past spring, the Luce Foundation and Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion convened a conference in Durban, South Africa, as part of the Center’s project on Law, Religion, and Human Rights in International Perspective. The conference brought together participants from nine African countries to “identify ongoing and future problem areas relating to the relationship between church and state and the interaction of religion and law in the various regions of the world.” A report from the conference notes:

[CSLR Senior Fellow Johan D. van der Vyver] makes a point of separating the terms “religiously neutral” and “secular” state, stating that secular states uphold the wall between the church and state to distance themselves from religious practices while a religiously neutral state seeks to uphold equal treatment of all religions without precluding itself from participating in or the sponsoring of religion. Van der Vyver explains that “if one upholds certain religious rites because the state compels one to do so, observance of those rites becomes a legal obligation and as such forfeits its faith-based (religious) significance.”

As in all parts of the world, religion can be either a powerful weapon in promoting moral values and enhancing humane conditions or it can actively oppose principles associated with human rights and fundamental freedoms. Pointing to the inferior status women hold in many countries, Van der Vyver explained that “polygamy, the payment of dowry, and the inferior status of women in African customary unions have thus far not been seriously contested, or even questioned, by main-line religious institutions.” Because there are adherents of Islam and Christianity that strongly oppose homosexuality, measures to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation have been met with incredible resistance.

For a recap of the conference’s proceedings and key conclusions, visit the Center for the Study of Law and Religion.