Christianising Samoa’s constitution and religious freedom in the Pacific

Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Apia (Flickr/Michael Coghlan CC BY-NC 2.0)

Samoa is in the process of amending its Constitution to declare itself as a Christian country. For Christians in Samoa, the Constitution Amendment Bill No. 2 (2016), which securely passed the second reading in Parliament in February, could have both positive and negative consequences. According to the Explanatory Memorandum, the object of the amendment is ‘to insert in the Constitution that Samoa is a Christian nation to declare the dominance of Christianity in Samoa.’

This is an important development in an era of increasing religious intolerance and state-sponsored vilification. While the amendment may be favourable to the predominantly Christian churches in Samoa, there is greater need to understand the impetus for such development and its potential ramifications on other religions whose members are integral to Samoa’s social cohesion.

Samoa refers to Christianity in the preamble of its current Constitution by calling for Samoa’s government to conduct itself “within the limits prescribed by God’s commandments” and for its societal values to be “based on Christian principles…” Almost all Pacific island countries, except Fiji, have adopted some acknowledgment of God in their preamble.

This practice of ‘christening the constitution’ has been a common feature in many post-colonial constitutions throughout Christendom. Conservatives value it as buffer against the intrusion of modernity and secularism. But this act of Christianising is typically symbolic and restricted only to the preamble which, on its own, is generally not an enforceable part of a constitution.

But Samoa intends to go further. Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielega has argued that because the preamble is not part of the Constitution, the reference to Samoa as a Christian country “does not stand in Court” so it has to be “included in the body of the Constitution.” This implies that the declaration of Christianity should not only be symbolic but have direct constitutional impetus, which in turn may allow the parliament to impose restrictions on certain religions or religious practices that are not Christian.

According to Attorney General Lemalu Hermann Retzlaff, the amendment “will enshrine Christianity from within the body of the Constitution which effectively provides a legal definition of the State’s religion.” But this is problematic on two accounts. First, having an official ‘state religion’ could mean the exclusion or alienation of other religions. Second, it could amount to a form of theocracy. Ever since the Glorious Revolution of the 17th century, the separation of church and state has taken a firm foothold in almost all democracies. Samoa’s attempt may blur this distinction and affect the right to people’s freedom of religion and equal treatment.

The right to religious freedom and non-discrimination is a cornerstone of modern democracy. For instance, the Australian Constitution expressly provides for the right to religious freedom despite the country not having a Bill of Rights. In the United States, President Donald Trump has faced significant setbacks from the Federal courts, which have consistently ruled that his Executive Orders restricting the travel of people from certain Muslim countries amounts to religion-based discrimination and are therefore unconstitutional.

Samoa’s Muslim community have raised similar concerns regarding the proposed amendment. They argued that it is an attempt to isolate the Islamic religion. Samoa’s council of Christian churches, however, appeared to welcome the amendment as a timely step towards restricting Islam and secularism in the country. A push for anti-Muslim policies is also quietly present in Papua New Guinea amidst the growing number of Muslim converts in the country.

The regional security and intelligence apparatuses might have their own assessment as to whether the Pacific island states are under any threat of extremism, but at this stage, this fear of an Islamic revolt appears to be influenced more by what is going around the world than any actual extremism in Samoa or PNG. Both the public and the political leaders are predominantly influenced by desensitised media outlets that often fail to provide a balanced perspective on the issue.

It its defence, Samoa’s current Constitution guarantees the right to religious freedom which includes the right “to manifest and propagate” a “religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance” [s 11(1)]. The government has argued that this guarantee will not be affected by the amendment to declare Samoa’s state religion as Christianity. But the guarantee is not absolute. The Constitution provides for instances where the government can impose restrictions on the exercise of this right and that includes on reasons of ‘national security, morals, or for protecting the rights and freedom of others.’ These are very broad conditions. In the words of the Constitution, “nothing shall prevent the State from making any law” to impose “reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right…” [s 11(2)].

It is feared that having a constitutionally based declaration of Christianity as the state’s religion will legitimise Christian morals and practices and that could provide the legal premises to restrict other practices whose values and beliefs may appear contrary. This concern was evident in the case of Tonga last year when the country banned bakeries from doing business on Sunday in honour of the Christian practice of worshipping on Sunday.

In the Bible scripture Matthew 28:19, the gospel commissions Christians “to go and make disciples of all nations” irrespective of their faith, religious background, tribe or kindred. The believers are called to declare their faith through the ‘cross of Jesus,’ not the constitution, and to live a life of love and good virtue. Christians in the Pacific islands may need to guard their faith against fear-driven campaigns that only legitimise and perpetuate religious vilification, Islamophobia and ultimately disunity.

As for Samoa’s Parliament, it needs to charter a responsible and sensitive discourse to this issue as an example to other Pacific island states who may be tempted with similar reform. The key in countering religious extremism is in the unity of the faiths, not their division.

Bal Kama is a PhD Candidate at the ANU College of Law and a sessional lecturer at the University of Canberra Faculty of Business, Government and Law.

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Bal Kama

Bal Kama is in legal practice as a Special Counsel specialising in areas of public law and is an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Canberra School of Law. He has a PhD in law from the ANU College of Law and undergraduate degrees in law, international relations, and politics.


  • The author raised two important reasons why a country should not make the religion Christianity enforceable by amendments to their constitutions.

    Firstly, he argues that in doing so it discriminates the rights of followers of other religion to practice their believe in a deity. Firstly, this brings the notion of rights itself. From a layman’s view, right is basically the liberty to act/do things in a certain way based on free choice. Secondly, when a right is disputed it is done so on the basis of certain grounds that brings into question why a party’s rights are disputed. It could be against common interest or violation of existing laws written or non-written. Disputing common interest relates to societal interest against minority interest in light of any form of threat to security or hindrance to prosperity for all etc. Violation of existing laws by a party is contested in a court of law to bring resolve to greving party(s).

    Now why are laws amended? Again from a layman’s point of view, amendments are done on existing law(s) on the grounds that it conflicts with other laws or due to societal need in a changing world or when new provision(s) is/are deemed relevant for the progress of law and rights that need protection by law.

    Based on the above, the amendments to constitutional provision on “freedom of religion” whether it be Samoa or any other pacific country, it should be based on 1. societal interest given the onslaught of terrorism driven by the ideology of religion. It is in the interest of national security to make such amendments and thus amendment is necessary. 2. Unless it conflicts other existing laws written and non written it should be amended which in this case it does not so it is amendable.

    On the issue of discriminatory or non democratic nature of the amendments to “freedom of religion” is only true or correct when an individual person’s right to religion or right to believe in a deity is striped by law. For instance the amendment must not spell out that every citizen should be a Christian or Buddhist etc…It is one’s free choice or right on an individual level to be a believer or non-believer. Amendments should only limit and restrict 1. entry of new religion, 2. it’s citizens and residents from publicly practising and 3. proliferate any religion apart from the lawful one….but individuals have the right to believe or not to believe.

    On the notion of Separation of Church and State by Christian dominated countries, there has to be clear demarcation between Church and State. State is mandated by the people and Church is mandated by God. Any amendment should not Christianise the State as a public institution or in any possible terms enable legislation(s) to do so.

  • Hooray for Samoa! Psalm 2 says that “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall hold them in derision.” He laughs at the nations who seek to defy Him! “Then shall He speak unto them in His wrath, and vex them in His sore displeasure: “Yet have I set My King upon My holy hill of Zion.”” Praise God that Samoa will “kiss the Son, lest He be angry and ye perish from the way, when His wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in Him.”

    And to the author: to “disciple the nations” is indeed to transform a nation in every aspect to a state of conformity to Christ. This means everything from the moral conduct of its citizens to the structure of its law and government. Note that Jesus said: “Go ye therefore and teach all nations… to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) God does not just want token moralism, but obedience to all of His revealed will in the Scriptures. God will bless the nation that seeks to do His will.

  • Hi Allan, I am not sure what you mean in terms of the issue but it did evidence tolerance which is a positive thing as argued in the article. A Head of State often has a limited role with even lesser influence on the process of constitutional amendment.

  • Seneca made a comment 2000 years ago

    “Religion is considered by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful”

    Samoa please reject this…….it will open the door to all sorts of mischief……

    you cant protest against God…….if the leaders of your country decide to make rules based on biblical laws then bit by bit freedoms that are taken for granted will be eroded….

  • What happens when the head of state is a Baha’i as was the case with the late Malietoa?

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