Although universal in nature, religious liberty is not universal in practice the world over. And a law designed to prevent conversions to Christianity in India is exhibit A for the truth that, in some countries, religion is but one more aspect of life controlled by government or ruthless factions that fear no government.
And this is why legal victories restoring or broadening religious liberty abroad are so important, particularly when those victories unburden a people who theretofore had been required to alert local magistrates before changing religions. In Evangelical Fellowship of India v. State of Himachal Pradesh, the High Court of the State of Himachal Pradesh ruled against just such a law.
The law required those intending to change religions to provide a district magistrate with "prior notice of at least 30 days…of his intention to do so." Failure to provide advance notice of conversion required a mandatory police investigation, prosecution, and sanctions. And if notifying the local government magistrate of one's new religion wasn't invasive enough – all persons desiring to change their religion were listed in a public registry, scanned regularly by fundamentalist Hindu extremists that make it a daily routine to retaliate against, persecute, and even murder new Christian converts. And of course the public notice law did not apply to anyone changing their religion to Hinduism.
There is a mighty struggle occurring in India in which 300 million Dalits (formerly called "untouchables") are suffering at the bottom rung on the Hindu caste system, enduring punishment in this life for what some Hindu faithful describe as sins committed in past lives. And millions are desperate to escape by seeking refuge in the Christian faith where all are created in God's image and equal in the eyes of God.
Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys and allies represented Evangelical Fellowship of India in challenging the law because it was being used as a cudgel to stop – through intimidation and fear – a potential flood of conversions to Christianity. Moreover, as all laws have symbolic importance, representing a society's dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior, the law and its operation communicated that conversion from Hinduism to Christianity was disapproved.
The law clearly violated the Indian constitution, which purports to guarantee freedom of religion, and served as a license for misconduct against new Christians whose names appeared on the public registry. So it shouldn't pass unnoticed that Christians in India and especially Christian clergy are attacked, harassed, and beaten every single day. In fact, over 100 Christian Dalits were murdered just three short years ago in the state of Orissa by fundamentalist Hindu mobs that ran amuck for months with little or no government intervention.
The victory in Evangelical Fellowship of India was one step in a long and on-going struggle to win genuine religious freedom in India.
The case will now go to the Indian Supreme Court where extreme pressure will be brought to bear by extremist Hindu organizations doing everything in their power to curtail the lowest Hindu caste from fleeing a life of religiously sanctioned poverty and degradation.
Every victory like this swings the pendulum closer to where all civilized people should want to be: a place where religious liberty is not only universal in nature, but in practice as well.