March 19, 2016

My 9-Year Fight to Change Indonesia's Bar Exam From Sabbath

, a lawyer in Jakarta, Indonesia, with Beatrice Putri Simamora

The day finally arrived.

Some of us had waited and prayed for two years, eight years, and even 12 years for the opportunity to take Indonesia’s bar exam on a day other than the Sabbath.

Now I joined a group of about 20 Seventh-day Adventists in a room at the Adventist Church’s West Indonesia Union Mission headquarters in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, to take the test that, if passed, would make us full-fledged lawyers.

“Praise God!” I thought to myself. We were meeting on a Sunday.

For years it seemed unlikely that Adventists would ever be able to take the bar exam in Indonesia. I failed the bar exam on my first attempt in 1999, back when it was administered by the Supreme Court and always scheduled for a weekday. But a 2003 national law reassigned the task of administering the bar exam to the Indonesian Association of Lawyers, known by its Indonesian-language acronym, PERADI, and PERADI subsequently scheduled all bar exams for Saturdays.

After not passing the bar exam in 1999, I took a break from my legal career to get married and start a family. But then in 2008 I decided to return to my career and learned that I could not re-take the bar exam because of the Sabbath conflict. I determined to collect the names of fellow Adventists who also wanted to become lawyers so we could petition PERADI to offer the bar exam on another day.

My initial efforts didn’t seem to go far. I sent out a flurry of e-mails but only heard back from one person, Markus Setiawan. He said PERADI had turned down his written request to offer the bar exam on another day and, as a result, put aside his legal ambitions to become a medical missionary.

I wasn’t sure what to do next. Several years passed. My fight would end up lasting nine years.

My Next Major Attempt

In 2011, an Adventist, Apriani Sijabat, contacted me to say that her employer was requiring her to take the bar exam as part of her job. After several meetings, we decided to take our dilemma to the Adventist Church’s local director for religious liberty issues, Samuel Simorangkir.

Simorangkir was eager to help and, at his suggestion, we set up an organization called the Legal Aid Institute to represent the interests of our Adventist group. The Legal Aid Institute, with assistance from the West Indonesia Union Mission, where Simorangkir works, submitted a written request to PERADI to offer the bar exam on an alternative day.

Days passed with no response. I contacted a member of PERADI’s supervisory commission to ask whether our letter had arrived. He confirmed that it had but said our request was too late. Final preparations for the upcoming bar exam had already been made.

We were disappointed but continued to pray and hope. Our group of Adventists who wanted to take the bar exam grew to 25 members.

Our next appeal, filed in 2013, was also rejected by PERADI.

A Possible Breakthrough

Then a breakthrough appeared in December 2014. A fellow Adventist, Timbang Pangaribuan, told me that he had been lobbying PERADI independently for some time and had just learned that it was ready to offer the bar exam to Adventists after sunset Saturday. PERADI, however, wanted the Adventists to stay in an isolated location throughout the day to ensure that people who took the bar exam at the regular time would not be able to leak the questions.

We met several times with PERADI and its bar exam organizing committee to discuss the details. We were told to wait for the next step: PERADI’s approval of the relevant decree.

The approval never came. PERADI officials abruptly changed their minds and canceled the plan to hold the post-Sabbath bar exam.

We were extremely disappointed. We had prayed for so long and had seemed so close to a resolution.

I thought about one of my last conversations with PERADI leaders. I had reminded them that we were not seeking to be rubberstamped as lawyers but to keep God’s law and worship on Sabbath. I had underscored the importance of obeying God’s law.

But PERADI leaders did not seem to care about our request. They were busy preparing for a congress to elect a new chair.

A month after the congress, PERADI abruptly broke up into three organizations that all claimed to be the legitimate PERADI.

The breakup left us confused. We didn’t know which of the three organizations to turn to with our Sabbath request.

I questioned what had happened. Why was it so difficult for us to take the bar exam? What was God’s purpose?

As I prayerfully considered the situation, I found an answer in my young son. As he walked into the room one day, I looked at him and realized that I would feel horrible if he decided that he wanted to become a lawyer but I had not fought my best to change the day of the bar exam. I understood that I was not just fighting for myself and our group of 25 Adventists but for the generations to come.

At the same time, it struck me that perhaps God was allowing the bar exam difficulties because He wanted us to realize that we cannot be mediocre lawyers and advocates as we seek to follow the example of the extraordinaire Lawyer and Advocate, Jesus Christ. How can we enforce the laws of the world if we violate God’s law?

Surprising News

I believe that it is because of God’s grace toward us that we received the stunning news in September 2015 that Indonesia’s Supreme Court had ruled that all bar organizations — including the three that split from PERADI — could offer the bar exam. With the help of the West Indonesia Union Mission, we applied to the Indonesian Congress of Lawyers, which had broken off from PERADI several years earlier, and received a positive reply.

On Sunday, Jan. 24, the Indonesian Congress of Lawyers offered the bar exam to a group of Adventists and non-Adventists at the headquarters of the West Indonesia Union Mission. The organization even hung a large banner on the wall announcing that the bar exam was being held in collaboration with the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Markus Setiawan and Apriani Sijabat were among the 20 Adventists in the room.

We bowed our heads in prayer before the beginning of the bar exam. We had worked hard to prepare for this moment. We had studied the law books. We had spent years praying and appealing for the right to observe God’s Sabbath law. Now we were filled with thanksgiving and a desire to glorify God’s name with our test results.

Two weeks after the bar exam, we learned that every Adventist participant had passed with flying colors.

As the Psalmist said, Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4, NKJV).

God is real, and religious freedom is alive and well in Indonesia — even if we need to fight for it sometimes.