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“State enactments need to be harmonised with Federal Constitution on religious conversions”

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COMMENT BY PROF DR P.RAMASAMY
INTERIM CHAIRMAN, URIMAI PARTY

State enactments need to be harmonised with
Federal Constitution on religious conversions

There are growing number of cases of the religious conversion of minors, those below age of 18 years of age. The main reason for the religious conversion of minors is the existence of state enactments that allow for conversion of minors with the consent of one parent.

These state enactments are not in accordance with the Federal Constitution that requires the consent of two parents for underaged children (the case of Indira Gandhi).

However, some states are not in accordance with the Federal Constitution. It because of this discrepancy that some states allow for the unilateral conversions of underaged children.

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Due to the discrepancy, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs) has appointed a committee under the religious department, Jakim, headed by the former chief justice Azmi Zaki to determine how the state enactments can be reconciled with the Federal Constitution.

Apparently there 13 known cases of religious conversion of minors. Chances are that there could be more cases in the country.

Na’im recently advised the public to accept the verdict of the Court of Appeals that reversed the lower court’s decision in rejecting the unilateral conversion of the three children of Loh Siew Hong.

Her children were converted to Islam in the state of Perlis where the state enactment allows for the conversion of underaged children with the consent of either the father or mother.

In the case of Indira Gandhi’s children, the Federal Court relying on the English version of the Constitution said that conversion of underaged children below the age of 18 years requires the consent of both the parents.

This landmark decision has become the current constitutional position of the nation in regard to unilateral conversions.

There are eight states in the country where enactments favour religious conversion decided by one parent. They are Federal Territories, Perlis, Kedah, Perak, Sarawak, Terengganu, Negeri Sembilan and Melaka.

The requirement of just one parent for religious conversions has been the source of problems for parents who have been divorced.

At the same time, states that require the consent of both parents are Penang, Pahang, Selangor, Sabah and Johore.

State legislations on unilateral conversions cannot be different to the Federal Constitution. As such, they are deemed ultra vires the Constitution.

The discord between state enactments and the Federal Constitution is a known matter in the country. It is this discrepancy between state and federal laws that have been taken as advantage by divorced or separated married couples in seekng custody over their children.

Religious conversions of children by one parent (parent who has been converted) have been used to deny the rights of the other parent.

I am glad that Nai’am has come up with this strategy to harmonise the state and federal laws on religious conversion.

If state and federal laws are not in congruence on religious conversion, the judiciary will be having difficulty time in adjudicating the matter.