Bringing together non-believers
By Kennedy Karuga, Chief Editor, AIK
200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote that although majorities will always prevail, their will to be right must be reasonable, and the minorities against which they prevail must possess equal rights, which the state is obligated to protect. To shirk its duty to protect minorities, Jefferson argued, would make the state an oppressor. Jefferson held this principle to be sacred and 200 years later, its sanctity is no more in question. The protection of minorities is the mark of democracy; it is the bulwark that keeps the mob passions and populist forces that inhere in every democratic society at bay. One need not look too far back in history to see the impossibility of creating a cohesive society on the basis of mob despotism.
The framers of Kenya’s constitution- like Jefferson- understood full well the importance of protecting minorities against the powerful momentum of majority will. To this end, the bill of rights- contained in chapter 4 of the Kenyan constitution- delimits the rights possessed by every Kenyan. Of necessity, rights are inalienable: they issue neither from the goodwill of governments or from the compassion of majorities. They are innate, and neither by popular will nor by legislative sleight of hand can they be suspended. The constitution, expectedly, does underline this fact.
By these lights, it is a crying shame when the state not only looks the other way as minorities are denied their constitutional rights, but also takes an active part in abrogating these rights. For close to a year, the members of ‘Atheists in Kenya’ have been trying to register their association as a society under the Societies Act. Per the constitution, law-abiding Kenyans are free to form associations and have them legally recognized. But as far as Joseph Onyango- the deputy registrar of societies- is concerned, this right does not extend to atheists, whom he insists are not recognized by the Kenyan constitution. Citing the preamble, his office has thrown out our application on the basis that ‘the people of Kenya recognize the supremacy of almighty god’. According to his office, the fact that atheists do not believe in the existence of a god precludes their constitutional recognition.
This deliberate misreading of the constitution neglects the entire fourth chapter of the document, which abounds with provisions that proscribe precisely the kind of behavior displayed by the Registrar’s Office. In Article 32 (2), the constitution establishes the ‘’right, either individually or in community with others, in public or private, to manifest any religion or belief.” Article 27 (4) further provides that the state “shall not, directly or indirectly, discriminate against any person on any grounds “, including, among other grounds, “religion, conscience, belief, culture, dress, language, or birth.” No honest reader of the constitution would argue that the deputy registrar’s actions do not amount to discrimination as contemplated in the constitution. His refusal to register ‘Atheists in Kenya’ on the grounds that its members lack religious belief is at clear variance- not just with the letter of the constitution- but also with the spirit that runs through the entire document.
The High court recently struck a blow for minority rights by ruling in favor of the registration of an LGBT group. In its ruling, the court stressed that “(the state) cannot rely on religious texts or its views of what the moral and religious convictions of Kenyans are to justify the limitation of a right.” Public employees have a constitutional onus to separate their moral persuasions from their decisions in their professional capacities. Public officers have a duty to serve every Kenyan equally, however disagreeable they might find their lifestyles, beliefs or opinions. This is the spirit of the new constitution. The message of the High Court rings clear: intolerance no longer has a place in Kenyan society. It is a message that the office of the Registrar should give particular attention to.
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