PETALING JAYA: Ipoh Barat MP M Kulasegaran has rejected the opinion that the bill to amend the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act (LRA) infringes on the liberty of Muslims.
Responding to comments made by Azril Mohd Amin, the CEO of Centhra (Centre for Human Rights Research and Advocacy), Kulasegaran said: “He has failed to realise that the proposed amendments to outlaw unilateral conversion is to deal with people who register their marriages under civil law and then try to cheat the system by converting.
“He should go and understand what the bill is meant for, and maybe take a law tuition class for that.”
He noted that one of the amendments would give civil courts the power to deal with divorces involving Muslims, including those who convert from another religion after their marriages.
On Wednesday, Azril hit out at the bill’s intention to ban unilateral conversion, saying it especially affected converts to Islam.
“Consent of both parents is needed if a child is to be converted to Islam,” he said. “This is discriminatory against Muslims as conversion to other religions requires no such joint consent.”
Azril said the requirement for joint consent was a violation of the Federal Constitution, which states that the religion of a child below the age of 18 years shall be decided by his parent or guardian.
“Unilateral conversions, therefore, are constitutional and the decision of the High Court in (kindergarten teacher) M Indira Gandhi’s case is an error,” he said, referring to the 2013 decision of the Ipoh High Court on the interfaith custody battle between a Hindu mother and her Muslim convert ex-husband.
That 2013 decision, favouring Indira, was subsequently set aside by the Court of Appeal. The case is now with the Federal Court.
Kulasegaran, a DAP member and the lawyer representing Indira, said Azril had wrongly interpreted the High Court ruling.
“The trial judge through his judgement had said the word ‘parent’ must be read in a plural meaning, denoting both father and mother,” he said. “If the word is not read in a plural meaning, then it makes the whole judgement nonsensical.”
Another lawyer, Andy Yong, also disagreed that Muslims’ rights would be violated by the proposed amendments.
“The ones who are really discriminated against are the spouses of converts, like Indira,” he said. “How are they supposed to file their cases in the shariah courts when they do not have legal standing in the Islamic courts?”
Yong added that the proposed amendments were not an attack on religion, but merely an attempt to end legal confusion over unilateral conversions.
Another lawyer, Zainul Rijal Abu Bakar, agreed with Azril on the point that the amendments were out of line with the Federal Constitution.
“The Federal Court concluded in 2009 that one parent is allowed to convert their children in the case of R Subashini because Article 12(4) of the Federal Constitution says so,” he said.
“Amendments to the law that contravene Article 12(4) are invalid unless the government amends that particular provision, or there is another Federal Court decision that departs from the Subashini ruling,” he said.
R Subashini and her ex-husband T Saravanan were also involved in a unilateral conversion dispute after Saravanan converted one of their children to Islam without her knowledge.
The bill to amend the 1976 act was tabled in Parliament last November. It has yet to be debated on. It seeks to ban unilateral child conversions and to make clear that matters of civil marriage will be handled in civil courts.