The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” – Albert Einstein.
This article forms part of Foundation for Religious Freedom (FRF) State of Religious Freedom advocacy and I am not holding the brief of Apostle John Suleman, a prominent Nigerian Christian evangelical in his own right neither is this my endorsement of the alleged miracle; but I am using the unfortunate incident to trigger healthy legal and cultural debate on the constitutional significance of the publication at issue in this article on the status of the inalienable right to religious freedom, religious expression, including artistic and cultural freedom from unreasonable censorship in Nigeria as well as the implication for the broad scope and application of this specie of liberties and freedoms across all constitutional democracies the world over. In addition, these religious freedoms enjoy additional layer of constitutional fortification under the doctrine of Church/State Separation enshrined at Section 10.
My purpose here is not intended to deride the Petitioner as I inevitably argue against the constitutionality of the purported petition in the public interest to promote constitutional awareness and address the constitutionality of the petition because of the undesirable precedent it purports to establish in the South which in my humble professional view represents a reckless affront on the already battered state of religious freedom and liberties generally in Nigeria. As you may already be aware that for the first time ever Nigeria was the first secular democracy in the world to be designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) in 2020 by the United States Department of State which clearly indicated, at least at the global level, that all is not well with the state of religious freedom and civil rights in Nigeria; in lay man’s parlance it means that Nigeria has a significantly high record of abuse of civil rights or that the government tolerated the abuse of human rights generally by States and sometimes by non-State actors.
As an ordinary citizen and an objective religious freedom litigator, I also saw the famous video of Apostle Suleman where the preacher was performing his religious duties and miracles of money transfer via mobile devices, like several other prominent and as well as unknown preachers that have come before and after him. It is customary for pastors to perform miracles in order to meet the religious expectations of their followers and this holds true prior to the 29th August, 2021 Sahara Reporters news report entitled: “Priest Petitions Nigeria Police, US Government To Investigate Apostle Suleman Over Miracle Money Scam.”
The petition under reference was allegedly submitted by one Apostle Akinyemi via a letter to the Attorney General of the United States of America dated July 23rd 2021 where the Petitioner requested an investigation into the incident as “it is capable of sending wrong information to the global community of churches and may also bring the CHRISTIAN FAITH to disrepute, derision, and ridicule.” The Petitioner went further, “I hereby request a thorough investigation into the claims of a pastor, Apostle Suleman of receipts of miracle bank alerts by congregants, at a gathering somewhere in Atlanta USA, the nature of the said miracle, if not address has the capacity to ridicule your banking system.”
One isolated question to be asked is how the FBI or Nigeria Police would discharge the evidential burden in order to prove this bogus crime in a court of law. It also remains uncertain the very end to be served by such request for investigation and sponsored persecution other than perniciously leading a State to unconstitutionally procure the justice system to traverse the prohibited cellars of religious and cultural dungeons and leaving it with murky consequences as is evidently the case in present day Nigeria. The alleged miracle was performed in a temple of God, by an ordained priest for the pleasure of his members and so far, no member of the Church has lodged any complaint that his/her money vanished on the miracle day rather they testified receiving of the miracle. So, how did the Petitioner or any member of the public in Edo State/Atlanta suffered any public harm? Or was this harm assumed? We must note that any alleged financial event before the miracle was uttered by the Man of God or occurring next day could no longer be regarded as a miracle. A miracle in the circumstance of the petition is required to be contemporaneous, germane, and spontaneous as we saw in the miracle alert video.
A wise counsel on the matter ought to advice that rather than use the FBI or Nigerian Police to threaten or intimidate a fellow citizen who acted within his own constitutional limits; why not simply setup a mission to debunk the purported miracle as a form of myth buster and publish a factual findings, it is clearly within the Petitioner’s fundamental human right to freedom of expression to do so legitimately. Unfortunately, the petition was seemingly loaded with legal and moral assumptions that the Petitioner and his constituency perceived the miracle of Apostle Suleman to be harmful and therefore tantamount to being regarded as a commission of a crime here in Nigeria and in the United States.
However, I humbly submit that the state of the law on the matter in Nigeria and in the United States did not support the presentation of a petition of this nature at all. I am not unaware that such religion-based petitions have many unconstitutional precedents under the various Penal Sharia Code Laws in Northern Nigeria but that is beyond the scope of this article. The Petitioner made an erroneous assumption effectively implicated by the wordings of the petition that a religious miracle (howsoever described) performed by a religious leader during the course of ANY religious worship, even though unbelievable or incredible to ANY other person is for that reason without more, unlawful or criminal. I humbly contend that it is not so at law and I firmly assert that there is nothing unlawful or criminal in nature about the alleged “Miracle Alert” social media video, because the conduct qualifies as a free exercise of religious practice and beliefs as provided under Section 38 of the Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended).
Similarly, the miracle alert video without more is also incapable of being reduced from its constitutional pedestal to a vague crime under the U.S. First Amendment, and any statute (be it federal or state’s statutes in the U.S) purporting to so encroach the religious space is subject to a strict constitutional scrutiny with each cases standing on their own merit. See, Sherbert v Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963). In Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993) This case is about the practice of a modified religion started in the Americas by slaves from Yoruba pagan religious culture where the U.S. Supreme Court prevented the City of Hialeah, Florida from an unconstitutional encroachment in purely religious exercise and declaring the City’s ordinance that forbids members of the Santeria religion from slaughtering animals in a public or private ritual or ceremony and not for consumption holding same as being unconstitutional. See also, Braunfeld v Brown, 366 U.S. 599 (1961) holding that the freedom to hold religious beliefs and opinions is absolute.
It is tempting to consider the question as to where the Petitioner got the legal impression that grounds a right to petition the State over this miracle from? I empathize with the Petitioner in the circumstance for thinking that a democratic government has any legal obligation and duty to insulate, prevent and at the same time posses the powers to punish its citizens for the ridicule of its banking system from religious miracle makers and therefore considered the performance of a money related miracle as a crime? Or for thinking or assuming that Nigerian Government or the US Government has an obligation in the twenty first century to use State machineries meant for administration of secular justice to prevent pastors or other religious believers from performing miracle alerts that are capable of sending wrong information to the global community of churches and may also bring the Christian faith to disrepute, derision, and ridicule? If the tone and aim of this petition itself is not absurd, ridiculous and vexatious at all I don’t know what else will be. On the flip side, if the Petitioner’s grouse is that Apostle Suleman’s miracle alert performed in Edo State/Atlanta was responsible for certain missing funds from his own bank account or from the bank account of someone known to him, now that would have properly grounded the right of the State to intervene, investigate and probably prosecute a properly defined crime by the FBI and Nigeria Police but not otherwise.
I further submit with due respect to the Petitioner that neither the alleged miracle, nor the alerts, nor the transmission of the miracle video itself over the social media constitute a crime per se. The petition as comprised was highly misconceived and same is without the requisite legal or evidential foundation as the Police in Nigeria or the FBI or including the Government of United States of America clearly lacks any jurisdictional competence to investigate, prosecute or criminalize a religious right enjoyed in Nigeria in a constitutional capacity and it is important to note that American constitutional jurisprudence on this point is same as Nigeria’s and very persuasive in Nigerian courts.
I therefore take the view that the ostensible goal of the Petitioner was to trigger criminal persecution of Apostle Suleman in Nigeria/U.S but doing so is not only prejudicial to Apostle Suleman but could properly ground a legal action against the Petitioner including the prospective enforcement of fundamental human rights as the petition has no real legal persona and same will not yield any lawful consequences in Nigeria and U.S upon proper constitutional scrutiny if the rules of stare decisis is anything to go by in the two countries. Again, it bears mentioning that unlike here in Nigeria, the United States not only respects religious freedom in its own territories but also expend billions of tax payer’s dollars worldwide annually towards the defence and promotion of religious freedom as one of the key pillar of its foreign policies and I say this with a high sense of responsibility that this petition to the U.S. on policy grounds alone is likely to be considered dead on arrival as there is no general constitutional basis under the U.S. First Amendment authorizing any entity to proceed with an investigation which in its practical application and effect is an encroachment of a citizen’s right to religious freedom nor will it permissible to bring a criminal proceeding in the circumstance. It is also grossly unhelpful that the Petitioner did not mention any statutory provisions in Nigeria or in the U.S. or a specific Statute of the State of Georgia which the performance of Apostle Suleman’s miracle in Atlanta actually contravened.
For the avoidance of doubt, Section 38 of the Nigeria Constitution is so notorious and makes ample provisions guaranteeing (not constraining) citizens’ religious freedom. In addition, Section 10 prohibits government from adopting any religion as a state religion. In similarly token, the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause together made up the United States Constitution in its First Amendment which declares that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof…” Consequently, any law prohibiting the performance of religious miracles by Nigerians restrict the free exercise of religion or beliefs as guaranteed under Nigerian Constitution or the First Amendment and therefore same will be void.
I must reiterate here also that there is no constitutional or statutory obligations imposed on any citizen of Nigeria requiring the regulation or validation of his/her religious beliefs and practices in Nigeria by any authority howsoever described except only by the internal creeds or injunctions of the religious body on its own accord neither could there be any justification in law for religious validation whether anyone’s religion or beliefs is guided by Animism, Scientology, Neo Paganism, Islam, Christianity, Shintoism, Satanism, Hinduism, the Magma Mater, Druidism, Wiccanism, Baha’I Faith, Taoism and so on. As a corollary to the foregoing, no law is valid in Nigeria or to be deemed valid as an existing law where same conflicts with any constitutional provisions and precludes or otherwise abridge the enjoyment of fundamental human rights in Nigeria and by logical and practical extension, in the United States of America.
Sensei Ebenezer Odubule is Principal Partner, Highbridge Chambers and Founder, CEO – Foundation for Religious Freedom (FRF). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org for your comments.
The original article on Sahara Reporter is available here http://saharareporters.com/2021/08/29/priest-petitions-nigeria-police-us-government-investigate-apostle-suleman-over-miracle