Association Formed To Protect Religious Freedom
BY RHOMA S TOMLINSON Observer writer
Monday, January 26, 2015
The Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) church in Jamaica has launched the country's first ever National Religious Liberty Association to defend the rights of employees, students and every other Jamaican whose religious liberty is under threat.
The association comes just months after the Government passed the controversial flexi-workweek Bill into law. The Bill, which set off a firestorm of controversy months before it was passed in Parliament, is seen by a number of religious groups as a threat to religious freedom, as they do not believe it sufficiently protects their day of worship.
However, Government has insisted that the law will not impact individuals' right to a day of worship, as it allows employees a 24-hour period which may be used as a worship day.
Though spearheaded by the Seventh-day Adventist church, the multi-denomination association will defend and seek to preserve religious liberty for all religions across the country.
The association is an arm of the prestigious International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), which has defended the rights of millions of Christians across the globe. The IRLA is recognised by the United Nations.
The launch of the national association, which took place at the National Arena on Saturday, saw thousands of Adventists and members of other religious denominations coming together for what the SDA church dubbed a 'Festival of Religious Freedom', under the theme 'Our right... our freedom, let's celebrate'.
The festival, which was hosted by the Jamaica Union of Seventh-day Adventists, was the first of its kind in the English-speaking Caribbean.
Jamaica Union's Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Director Nigel Coke, who officially launched the local association, said though Jamaicans currently enjoy religious freedom, they should not take it for granted, hence the formation of the association. Coke, who is the new association's secretary-general, named Reverend Conrad Pitkin as the first president and a number of other denominational heads as members of an interim board.
Minister of Water, Land, Environment and Climate Change Robert Pickersgill, who represented the prime minister at the festival, said the 2011 amendment to the Jamaica Constitution, which entrenched the Charter of Rights, secured freedom of religion for all Jamaicans.
Pickersgill said his Government recognises the "enormous impact" of religious freedom on Jamaica's development."Countless schools, hospitals, donor agencies and long-standing community development programmes in Jamaica are the result of religious freedom and the strong influence of the church," Pickersgill said. "This is in addition to a wellspring of positive values and attitudes for wholesome development of our society."
Member of Parliament Pearnel Charles, who represented Opposition Leader Andrew Holness, promised that the Jamaica Labour Party would continue to defend religious freedom "today, tomorrow and to the end of the party". However, he charged the church to speak out against all human injustice.
"You cannot be silent when freedom is under attack... when our people are being murdered all over the world, including in Jamaica," he said.
He also encouraged the church to care about politics, "because if you don't care, somebody else is going to care. Be ready to defend your freedom. Attack on freedom anywhere is an attack on freedom everywhere", Charles said.
Vice-president of the Inter-America Division of Seventh-day Adventists, Pastor Leon B Wellington, said even in the United States, "where freedom of conscience is legislated, it is not always respected".
At a time when religious freedom is under attack across the globe, he called on Jamaica to "speak up to defend those who have no voice".
Chairman of the Jamaica Umbrella Group of Churches, Reverend Pitkin, thanked successive Jamaican governments for preserving religious freedom and allowing religious organisations to establish educational and health-based institutions beneficial to their members.
Shortly after the launch of the association, the Jamaica Union recognised both the Government and Opposition, Love 101 FM, the Press Association of Jamaica, and other private sector organisations for their contribution to the preservation of religious freedom.