Chinese Church Voices

Draft Proposal for a Law of Religion Unveiled

Chinese Church Voices is a weekly column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.

In recent years, think tanks and government research offices have been openly discussing the issue of religion and law in Chinese society, and putting forth proposals for resolving numerous "religious issues" that continue to plague the government and society.

One think tank, the Pushi Institute for Social Sciences in Beijing has long argued that the fundamental problem is that religion sits outside of the rule of law in China. In other words, there are no laws that either protect (or prohibit) religion; there are only regulations designed to supervise and manage religion. Therefore, argues Professor Liu Peng, President of Pushi Institute for Social Sciences, the National People's Congress needs to enact a Law of Religion.

For the past ten years, Professor Liu and his team at Pushi have been working on this issue, and in June of this year, they released a proposed draft for such a law. The draft was released at the "2013 Religion and the Rule of Law Symposium," held in Beijing in June.

Of course this is a long way from such a law actually being taken up by the National People's Congress. However, the public release of this draft provides an interesting glimpse of some of the discussions and debates taking place within China.

Recently, Professor Liu spoke with The Christian Times about his draft. The article is translated below:

At the 15th Congress, the strategy of governing the nation according to the law was put on the agenda. Last year, at the 18th Congress report, this strategy was further elevated. When it comes to matters of religion, many academic and religious personnel have been suggesting for more than a decade that a religious law should be passed in order to better manage religious affairs.

On July 20th, the National People's Congress (NPC) and Parliamentary Research Center of Peking University Law School, Beijing Foreign Studies University Law School, and Pushi Institute for Social Sciences co-hosted the 2013 Religion and the Rule of Law Symposium in Beijing. At the symposium, Professor Liu Peng, President of Pushi Institute for Social Sciences, unveiled the first Citizens Recommendation Draft of a Chinese Religious Law (2013) proposed by him and his colleagues at the Institute.

He introduced the basic content and framework of the draft.

Section One: General Provisions

Section Two: Religious legal Persons

Section Three: Sites for Religious Activities

Section Four: Religious Activities

Section Five: Religious Personnel

Section Six: Religious Property

Section Seven: Religious Education

Section Eight: Religious Culture and Art

Section Nine: International Religious Exchange

Section Ten: Supplementary Provisions

Professor Liu said that for the past ten years he has been leading the Pushi Institute for Social Sciences to study the religious laws of various countries, comparing and analyzing the basic modes of religious laws around the world and in the Taiwan Region. This Religious Law draft is a result of those studies and is based on current conditions in Chinese society. We have had more than ten years of discussion. We started by asking the following questions: What is freedom of religion? What is the relationship between religion and the rule of law? Why is religious legislation necessary? These formed the basis of solid research on related issues. We finally completed the draft of the Religious Law in June of this year.

Professor Liu says that the aim of this proposal to establish a religious law is to raise awareness of the important question of religious legislation and to solve religious problems in China through the rule of law. Professor Liu believes that it is the trend of the times to establish a religious law and this proposal is in accordance with the general governing direction of the rule of law. Religious law is an indispensable part of legal construction in China and will provide an essential means of solving religious frictions and problems and facilitate the currently lagging management system. As a country under the rule of law, China needs a religious law. The formulation of a religious law should be open, democratic and scientific; voices from religious, academic, legal, and governmental circles should all be heard, and the wide participation of people of different spheres should be advocated. Professor Liu hopes that this draft proposal of a religious law will be a starting point, offering a framework for people who care about religion and the rule of law to think about and discuss the specific questions.

Professor Liu pointed out that religious legislation is not only an issue of the rule of law, but it also embodies the question of the extent to which the country is willing to make religion a positive factor in society. Since the 90's, Professor Liu has been studying religion and the rule of law, calling for reformation of the religious management system in China and the speeding up of the enactment of religious legislation and the rule of law. To promote this, Professor Liu has published numerous articles and held several conferences on religion and the rule of law at the Pushi Institute for Social Sciences, which he leads. After ten years of effort, more and more people in the religious and academic circles have begun to pay attention to this issue, recognizing the national, ethical, social, and religious importance of the rule of law in religion. The religious issues in China can only be effectively and properly resolved through the rule of law.

Introduction to some main points in the draft religious law

During the symposium, Professor Liu briefly introduced the basic content of the draft religious law. Below are some main points.

1. The core of the draft religious law is freedom of religious belief and separation of church and state.

From the start, the draft of the religious law emphasizes freedom of religious belief and the separation of church and state. These are the basic tenets as well as the key aims of the religious law draft. The focal point of the draft is to protect freedom of religious belief rather than manage or restrict it. At the same time, the draft clearly puts forward the proposal that the country implement the separation of church and state. The separation of church and state is a basic principle for nations guided by the rule of law to deal with the relationship between church and state in modern society. Render unto Caesar things that are Caesars, and to God, things that are Gods. One main reason that many religious problems have not been resolved in China is that the church and state are not separate and the law fails to establish a model for this separation.

2. Religious groups are free to decide whether they want to register as religious legal persons.

Religious groups are free to decide if they want to register as religious legal persons. The categories of religious group and religious legal person must be distinguished. If a religious group chooses to register as a religious legal person, then it can enjoy civil rights and obligations as an independent subject; if it chooses not to register as a legal person, then it shares the same freedom of religion as the registered groups, but is not considered as an independent civil subject.

Professor Liu says that, when a religious group signs a contract or deals with other organizations in society, and needs an identity, the issue of whether to register and become a religious legal person becomes important. He also says that registered religious groups can work with other institutions in society as independent civil subjects; unregistered religious groups are simply voluntary gatherings of religious citizens, they do not need the identity of a legal person when they are not interacting with other people or institution in the society. Also, there are denominations who would refuse to enter the public domain because of their religious beliefs and we should respect their choice.

If a religious group is not registered as a religious legal person, then when it comes to religious property issues, the relevant provisions in the religious law do not apply to them; rather they should follow the provisions in the Property Law or general principles of the Civil Law. For religious groups that are not registered as religious legal persons, their property is not public property, but private property belonging to group members and should be protected by the civil law.

3. Religious cultural relics should not cease to be religious property simply because they are also considered to be cultural relics.

The ownership of religious property presents a unique challenge: some religious properties are at the same time cultural relics. Who owns those properties? Who should keep those properties? Should the religious groups, the cultural relics department, or other government departments own them?

Concerning this issue, Professor Liu quoted the relevant clauses in the draft of religious law and offered a solution. There is a whole chapter in the draft concerning religious property with 22 articles. Article 55 states: Religious groups, sites for religious activities, religious schools, and other religious institutions have the duty to protect cultural relics. No department or individual should take possession of religious property under the guise of protecting cultural relics. As for religious structures, stone tablets, carvings, and such properties that originally belonged to religious groups and were later declared by the state to be cultural relics (under the management and use of religious clergy before the cultural revolution, occupied and taken by non-religious groups after the cultural revolution), they should be returned to the original religious groups, activity sites, schools, or other institutions that owned them or to religious legal persons that are inheritors of such religious institutions within a year from the date of implementation of this law. The religious properties belonging to religious legal persons that are declared to be cultural relics would not change their nature as religious property because of their status as cultural relics.

Professor Liu believes that all cultural relics should be well protected. However, the ownership of a religious property should not be changed because it becomes a cultural relic or it is in the hands of someone else. It is unreasonable to say that because a religious relic is declared to also be a cultural relic that ownership should be transferred to another entity. Religious relics are first identified as religious property, then as relics. In fact, the group that cherishes it most will want to protect it most. Obviously this is the religious group and the religious believers. Numerous precious religious relics have been preserved mainly through the hands of religious groups and religious believers. Buddhist leader Zhao Pu has written articles specifically discussing why religious groups should protect religious relics.

4. Religious groups and religious sites should not earn profits.

What should we do with religious structures and religious properties located in scenic sites? Should temples sell tickets for their tourist attractions? Professor Liu takes a clear stand in the draft of the religious law:

For houses, buildings, ancillary facilities, plants and trees, tombs, memorial towers and other structures that belong to a religious legal person and are located in a tourist site, the property rights and rights to use and management belong to the religious legal person. Any party and government organ, group, or individual should not transfer those properties for any reason to non-religious groups or individuals. If the religious property has been occupied or transferred, ownership should be returned to the religious group (Article 56); Religious legal persons or parties and government organs, groups, and individuals should not profit from religious sites, religious structures, and affiliated facilities which belong to religious legal persons (Article 58); Whether the religious group, religious sites, religious schools, or other religious institutions and affiliated facilities are open to the public should be decided by the religious legal person. If they are open to the public, they must be free. (Article 59)

5. Religious legal persons should enjoy tax-free status.

Following international practice, religious groups generally enjoy tax-free status. The religious law draft also makes such provisions:

Revenue obtained by religious legal persons through religious activities, religious properties, philanthropy, and donations enjoy duty-free status. The scope of the tax exemption includes the following: (1) Buildings used by the religious legal person, religious sites and religious buildings; (2) Stone tablets, towers, tombs, columbarium owned by the religious legal person; (3) Income through religious activities held by the religious legal person (religious rites, chanting, consecrations, Dharma assembly, baptisms, weddings, funerals, channelings, religious ceremonies, religious celebrations and religious services); (4) Income through the selling of religious classics, brochures, pictures, audio, and video products, artifacts, religious items by the religious legal person; (5) Income generated through social welfare and philanthropy activities by the religious legal person; (6) donations (Article 61)

6. Provisions involving religious financial supervision.

Religious financial supervision is an important issue. Professor Liu introduced the provision regarding this issue in the religious law draft:

Religious legal persons should execute the countrys financial management and accounting system in accordance with the states financial management system. All income shall be incorporated in the financial management (Article 63, 64); The financial management of religious legal persons should be transparent. The legal person should submit its annual investigative report to the government on time and announce it to religious believers and donors. This report shall be audited by a third party (qualified audit department) before it is issued. (Article 67); To avoid someone using the legal person status to collect money or engaging in money laundering activities, when the religious legal person cancels their registration or is dismissed, the original civil registration department shall, together with the tax department, do liquidation of its property and financial situation. After the liquidation, the religious property can be transferred to other religious legal persons, but shall not in any form be transferred to non-religious groups or individuals. (Article 69)

Original article: 刘澎教授公布中国《宗教法》(草案)公民建议稿要点

Image credit: Joann Pittman