Malaysia's highest federal court earlier this week refused to recognize the conversion of a Muslim-born woman to Christianity. The panel ruled 2-1 that the decision was beyond the secular court's discretion.
Lina Joy, 43, converted from Islam to Roman Catholicism in 1998. Her troubles began shortly thereafter when she tried to change her religious affiliation on her national identification card. Because Islam requires adherents to marry within the faith, Joy would not be allowed to wed her Catholic fiancée if she was registered as a Muslim.
Government officials denied the request, forcing her to turn to the courts. The Boston Globe reports that the six-year battle for her most basic right, the right to believe, came to a close on Wednesday. Writing for the majority, Federal Court Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim admonished "[She] can't at whim and fancy convert from one religion to another... She must follow rules."
Justice Richard Malanjum, the panel's lone non-Muslim, protested that Joy's "fundamental constitutional right of freedom of religion" had been denied. Malaysia's constitution is conflicted on church-state relations because it simultaneously establishes Islam as the official religion and defends free exercise of other religions.
Her options, the majority said, were to face a Sharia [Islamic] court or flee the country. She could face fines, imprisonment or execution if she goes before the Islamic tribunal.
The decision shocks the conscience because Malaysia is considered one of the world's most modern and forward thinking majority-Muslim democracies. Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs, representing about 40 percent of the country's population, have lived peacefully with Muslims for decades.
Joy's case marks a disturbing trend in church-state relations around the world, and reminds us that democracies are not immune to theocratic control. The American constitutional principle of church-state separation protects us from egregious violations of conscience such as that suffered by Ms. Joy. But we must remain ever alert to the forces of religious extremism within our own borders that pose a threat to that most precious freedom.