The Madhya Pradesh state in India passed legislation earlier this month requiring people to seek governmental permission at least one month before converting to a new religion, or face three years in prison, according to Morning Star News. The bill is waiting for the governor’s signature.
Current law already requires converts to alert government officials after switching religions. The new law, which passed on July 10, also requires religious leaders to report the conversions and includes a provision for police inquiry. The bill also requires clergy to fill out an application that specifies the day, location, and witnesses of the conversion ceremony, with a list of would-be converts. The application must be submitted to the district magistrate’s office a month in advance.
The penalty for failing to report the converts increases to four years in prison or up to 100,000 rupees ($1,680) if the converts are minors, women, or members of disadvantaged people groups eligible for affirmative action benefits. The Himachal Pradesh High Court struck down similar legislation in August of last year.
“These laws are political gimmicks used to polarize voters along religious lines—it is common knowledge that these laws have already been misused to terrorize the minority Christian community across the country,” Tehmina Arora, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom India, told Morning Star News.
The bill amends the “anti-conversion” law of 1968. Known as the “Freedom of Religion Acts,” the law is supposed to prevent forcible or fraudulent conversions, but Hindu nationalists have used it to arrest Christians.
“The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief noted in a report after a visit to India that there is a risk that ‘Freedom of Religion Acts’ may become a tool in the hands of those who wish to use religion for vested interests or to persecute individuals on the ground of their religion or belief,” Arora said.
“A person’s belief or religion is something very personal to him,” the Himachal Pradesh High Court ruled in striking down the similar 2012 bill. “The state has no right to ask a person to disclose what is his personal belief. … The remedy proposed by the state may prove to be more harmful than the problem.”