Today, the Federal Court dismissed the Roman Catholic Church’s appeal in the Allah case. This was an outcome not unexpected judging by the trend of recent court decisions in such cases.
I was asked today what the Federal Court decision means. For example, does it change anything?
First, we must understand what the case was all about. The Roman Catholic Church in Malaysia (RC) puts out a bulletin called the Herald. All this time, it was published in English. They wanted a Malay language version and applied to the Ministry of Home Affairs (KDN) for a licence. KDN eventually said that a licence would be given but the word “Allah” must not to be used in the Malay language Herald. The RC disagreed and filed a case in the High Court to challenge the KDN decision. To justify their decision, KDN said that certain state enactments had banned non-Muslims from using the word Allah. The RC argued that the Malay-speaking Christians in Malaysia had used this word to refer to God hundreds of years before the prohibition existed and that the ban was unconstitutional in that it violated the rights of Christians to freedom of religion under Article 11 of the Constitution.
The High Court ruled in favour of the RC. In October last year, the Court of Appeal overturned the High Court decision. The RC then applied for leave to appeal to the Federal Court, the highest court in the land. What is this application for leave? According to the law, there is no automatic appeal from a decision of the Court of Appeal. There are 2 stages to contend with. First, the losing party must get leave or, in layman’s terms, permission to appeal. To get leave to appeal, certain criteria must exist. One of them is that the appeal involves interpretation of the Constitution. Secondly, once leave is granted, the Federal Court then hears the substantive appeal and decides whether the Court of Appeal had made a correct decision. There is no further appeal from the Federal Court.
It is fair to say that the Federal Court decision could be confined to its facts as argued by some quarters, namely, it just means that the KDN was justified in refusing a licence if the RC wanted to use the word Allah in the Malay language Herald. However, it is likely that courts will adopt a wider application of the Court of Appeal decision as seen in the recent decision in the SIB case in May when the Kuala Lumpur High Court refused to entertain SIB’s application for judicial review of KDN’s seizure of SIB’s Malay language Sunday School materials. The Judge had said that she was bound by the Court of Appeal decision and thus had to dismiss SIB’s application.
Coming back to the question: what changes have resulted from the Federal Court decison?
I would say none. The status quo started from October 2013 when the Court of Appeal overturned the High Court decision. In effect, it affirmed the validity of the ban against non-Muslims using the word Allah. Since October last year, the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM) was raided and 321 Malay and Iban bibles were seized by the Selangor Islamic department (JAIS). So, the legal status from October last year to today when the Federal Court announced its decision has actually not altered.
Recently, the Attorney-General (AG) announced that the JAIS raid on BSM was wrong and that BSM had committed no offences that deserved prosecution. In spite of being challenged by the Selangor Islamic Council (MAIS), the AG had affirmed his decision that no action will be taken against BSM. Even the Prime Minister called on all parties to respect the AG’s decision.
It should be noted that the AG’s decision was made during the regime of the Court of Appeal decision. As the Federal Court today chose not to touch the Court of Appeal decision, it means that things continue as they were since October last year. In other words, nothing had changed including the correctness of the AG’s decision.
To sum up, the reality in Malaysia today is as follows:
- The finding by the Court of Appeal that state enactments banned non-Muslims from using the word Allah was not overturned and therefore still stands.
- KDN would be justified in imposing the condition that the word Allah not be used when it issues publishing licences.
- Non-Muslims may not use the word Allah in states that have laws banning its use. In states without such laws, non-Muslims are not banned from using the word, eg. Sabah, Sarawak, Federal Territory and Penang.
- It is not an offence against such state enactments to import, print and use the Alkitab, the Malay language bible, even though the word Allah is used.
This is a quick response to the events of today. I will write more about the implications for Christians later.