A Kaduna State High Court has declared as illegal the Religious Regulatory Bill passed by the House of Assembly, saying it infringed the fundamental rights of pastors to propagate Christianity in the state.
Specifically, Justice Hajara Gwadah ruled that the plan by the government to issue licences to the pastors of Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), using the bill, is a gross violation of their fundamental human rights, which guarantees the freedom of association and freedom of religion.
The judge also declared the bill as inconsistent with the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) and, therefore illegal, null and void.
Gwadah, who lamented the action of the House of Assembly in proceeding to pass the bill into law despite pending court proceedings and a subsisting court injunction restraining the action, said it was “ an affront to this honourable court.”
The case was instituted by the PFN, Kaduna chapter, since 2016 against Governor Nasiru El-Rufai, the House of Assembly and the attorney general and commissioner for justice.
In his reaction, the State Director of Civil Litigation, Usman Sanusi, who represented the respondents, said the government would appeal the judgment.
The PFN’s lead counsel, Sanni Akani, who spoke to journalists expressed satisfaction with the judgment, pointing out that “Section 38 (1) of the constitution allows everybody to propagate his religion, in teaching, actions, in observance, and in worship.
“When you now say pastors should be licensed, you have infringed that section 38. That is why the court agrees with us that Section 6 of that bill that says that the government will set up a religious regulatory committee to screen pastors is against the constitution.”
Akani insisted: “The court said you can regulate religion, fundamental right is not absolute, but the issue of licensing pastors is against their constitutional rights.”
The state branch of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), described the verdict as a landmark victory for all religious bodies in Kaduna.
The Chairman of CAN, Reverend John Joseph Hayab, said: “It shows that some of the excesses of Governor El-Rufai and the House of Assembly are now being exposed to the world. We are hundred percent in support of this judgment and a point has been made that you cannot trample on the fundamental rights of religious practices of the people.”
At the CAN secretariat in Kaduna and the PFN office in the city yesterday, some Christians were seen gathered in groups, celebrating the judgment.
One of the officials who spoke with The Guardian said: “Any attempt to force the religious bill will be resisted. We are ready to be on the streets in Kaduna and even Abuja to protest vehemently against any attempt to regulate our religion by not allowing us to preach or evangelise either in the public or privately.”
Legal experts are already expressing concern about the time within which the judgment was delivered after parties exchanged written addresses, wondering whether it could render the decision void. According to the rules, judgments are expected to be delivered not more than three months after written addresses.
But Abuja-based lawyer, Abubakar Sani, said the fact that the judgment came more than three months after final address would not cause any harm.
”The rule is not absolute. If you want to challenge the decision on appeal on that ground, it does not automatically entitle the court to set it aside, unless the court believes that the delay helped to affect the judgment of the judge,” he said.
Also, Lagos lawyer, Chris Okeke, said “such delays are provable by evidence.”
“I am also made to understand that this enactment by the Kaduna State government was made or attempted to be made when parties were in court. It is elementary law that such exercise of legislative powers was made les pendis. That it is les pendis makes it a double tragedy and raises the question: Do our institutions understand, appreciate and respect the rule of law and its ramifications and implications for our polity? I pray they are not dragging us to the point of saying good-bye to these cherished values, which represent the best of our modern civilisation.”
However, Akanni said the time the judgment was delivered was of no issue since parties only exchanged affidavits and did not call witnesses to warrant argument about the judge forgetting the demeanor and conduct of witnesses in the matter.