In Lina Joy v Majlis Agama Islam WP 2007 4 MLJ 585, the plaintiff was born and raised up as a Muslim with given name Azlina Binti Jailani by her natural Muslim parents. On 21 February 1997, she applied to the National Registration Department (NRD) to change her name to Lina Lelani. Claiming that she had never believed in Islam, she renounce Islam and embraced Christianity. She was intended to marry a Christian. However, the first application was rejected on 15 March 1997. The plaintiff applied again for the second time to NRD to change her name to Lina Joy. This time she made another application to remove the word ‘Islam’ from her new identity card. Her application was unsuccessful as NRD refused to accept her application without an order from Syariah Court on the ground of her renouncement from the religion of Islam. Lina Joy then sought legal remedies.
Right of religious freedom is clearly provided under article 11(1) of the Federal Constitution. It seems to be applicable to every person. However, the application of the provision thus far is still shrouded on mystery and contradictions, especially when it involves the Muslims right to freedom of religion. The meaning of freedom of religion given in Islam is different from meaning in others religion. It has several restrictions which illustrated that freedom of religion in Malaysia is not precisely equal. A Muslim is not free to choose a religion of his choice. But, this provision still remained in the Federal Constitution because to maintain social stability.
Besides that, the court emphasized that ” A person as long as he or she is Malay and by definition under Article 160(2) of Federal Constitution of Malaysia, which is a Malay person cannot renounce his or her religion at all. A Malay under this provision should remain in Islamic faith until his or her dying days. The said Malay cannot renounce his or her religion through a deed poll and seek a declaration by virtue of Article 11 of Federal Constitution of Malaysia on freedom of religion as Article 11 does not provide freedom of choice of religion. Even if one is non-Malay and embraces Islam and becomes a Muslim convert (Mualaf) and later decides to leave the Islamic faith, he or she is still required to report and see the relevant State Islamic authority who will decided on his o her renounciationn of Islam.”
Above content shows the Islam is the main dominant religion and has a special position in Malaysia. It grants every person the freedom to profess and practice his religion. However, in respect of an act of conversion out of Islam, it must be subject to the relevant Shariah Laws to be determined by the Shariah Court.
Freedom of religion under Article 11(1) must be read with Article 3(1) which places Islam in a special position as the main dominant religion of the Federation, with the Federation duty bound to protect, defend and promote Islam.
As a conclusion, Lina Joy’s case is the first case in Malaysia that makes a clear and bold statement about the position of Islam and the right to freedom of religion. Article 11(1) gives a person the right to profess a religion of his choice but if a Muslim wish to convert out of Islam, only the Shariah Court is competent to determine the matter.