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Religion, the Constitution and Your Rights in Belize

Posted: Tuesday, February 20, 2024. 10:55 am CST.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Breaking Belize News.

By Dylan Vernon, Time Come, 8 February 2024: During the usual ham and turkey handouts by politicians in December 2023, a different kind of X-mas gift made the news. Five days before X-mas, the Government of Belize and a grouping called the ‘Church Communities’ signed a 10-point Statement of Agreement that affirmed the preambular commitment to the ‘supremacy of God’ as a fundamental constitutional principle. The two parties also re-affirmed some of the religious freedoms stated in Part II of the Constitution of Belize. But the Agreement also went further. Apart from an insightful critique made by the always fearless Caleb Orozco, there was negligible public discussion about this development and its timing. What do we make of it? How does this relate to the current constitutional review process?

The Origins of the God Clause

Before addressing the Agreement, it’s useful to recall the constitutional history of the ‘supremacy of God’ clause and that of religious freedoms in the Constitution. As I noted in a previous Time Come post, the 1963 Self-Government Constitution did not have a substantive Preamble nor a section on human rights. The ‘supremacy of God’ phrase first appeared in clause (a) of the proposed Preamble in the White Paper on the Proposed Terms for the Independence Constitution of Belize, released in February 1981. That clause (a) remained unchanged throughout the entirety of the constitution-making process in 1981 and beyond. Today, it still reads:

Whereas the people of Belize –

affirm that the Nation of Belize shall be founded upon principles which acknowledge the supremacy of God, faith in human rights and fundamental freedoms, the position of the family in a society of free men and free institutions, the dignity of the human person and the equal and inalienable rights with which all members of the human family are endowed by their Creator.

While the Father of the Nation, George Price, did not pen these words, his influence must have been significant if not decisive in including them. In reality, these words are not original. They are letter-for-letter identical to those in the first clause of the Preamble of the first Constitution of Trinidad & Tobago (1962).  This, and other similarities with preambles of some other Commonwealth states, imply direct British influence and, therefore, the legacy of colonialism.

During the brief public consultations on the White Paper in February and March 1981, there was widespread support for the ‘supremacy of God’ clause from individuals and organisations. In fact, there were a few proposals to go further and enshrine what some call the ‘church/state partnership’ in the evolving constitution – including such a proposal related to education from the then Bishop of the Roman Catholic Church. During a Belize City consultation,  the Islamic Mission noted that it agreed with the inclusion of the ‘supremacy of God’ clause, but with the caveat that, “It is our firm belief that the model for an ideal constitution is contained in the Holy Quran, which was revealed from the Almighty to the Prophet Muhammed.”

The only other noteworthy mentions of religious matters during the 1981 consultations were in the context of discussions on whether a national prayer and the national anthem should be enshrined in the new constitution. Most people wanted to include a national prayer, with several supporting a specific one that referred to Jesus Christ. But some, including an Anglican priest (Report of the San Ignacio Constitution), opposed – arguing that prayers are individual things and selecting one could be divisive. A politician agreed with the priest and argued that the freedom of religion will be absolute (in the new constitution) and that singling out any religious prayer would “violate the principle of universal freedom.”

There was widespread support for including the national anthem in the constitution, but vocal monotheists insisted ‘gods’ be removed from the original line ‘land of the gods.’ We know that they succeeded – the line became ‘land of the free’. In any case, no national symbols were included in the Constitution. (See my Time Come post of 10 October 2023).  At the Belize Constitutional Conference in London in April 1981, the British, predictably, raised no questions about the supremacy of God clause.

Eighteen years after independence in 1999 and during Belize’s first comprehensive constitutional review led by the Political Reform Commission (PRC), the supremacy of God clause was, as a matter of course, discussed. The PRC observed that:

Several Commissioners were in agreement with a proposal received by the Commission to replace “supremacy of God” with wording that was more inclusive of all religious and spiritual beliefs. Some had argued that the term “God” was not used by some religions and that some citizens are atheists. Suggestions for re-wording included “acknowledge a Supreme Being,” and “acknowledge moral and spiritual values.”

In the end, the Final Report of the PRC (Recommendation #9) reported that the majority of the commissioners either opposed the proposal or thought it may be too distracting to the overall reform agenda to pursue.

Entrenched Religious Rights in the Constitution

According to the People’s Constitution Commission (PCC) Act, the people of Belize should now be reviewing the Independence Constitution and providing instructions to the PCC on what is to go in a revised or new people’s constitution. The PCC is then to share what reforms the people desire with the government. Wherever that ends up, it’s useful to recall how religion is addressed in the current Constitution. Apart from the terms ‘God’ and ‘Creator’ in the Preamble, matters of God receive a lot of ink in Part II of the Constitution on Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. The term ‘creed’ appears two times, ‘religious’ appears five times and ‘religion’ appears nine times. Of note is that the term ‘church’, which dominates the Statement of Agreement, does not appear in the Preamble nor in Part II of the Constitution at all.

In legal terms, the freedoms related to religious conscience, association and practice are among the most protected in the Constitution. The Preamble at clause (e), “requires policies of state which eliminate economic and social privilege and disparity among the citizens of Belize whether by race, ethnicity, colour, creed, disability or sex…” In the substantive Section 3 of the Constitution, every person is entitled to all the rights and freedoms in the Constitution regardless of creed and other differences. And almost the entirety of Section 11 (on Freedom of Conscience) is about protecting religion. Included here is the right of religious groups to operate educational institutions and to provide religious instruction.

Since 1981, only one constitutional amendment (2008) has been made that directly relates to religious matters. This is that a segment of the religious groups in Belize (the Belize Council of Churches and the Evangelical Association) now have a seat on the appointed Senate of the State – along with three other civil society appointees.

All that said, I could end this post now, save some time and ink, and avoid likely attacks. But there are no sacred cows in any constitutional review – including matters of religion.

The State: A Matter

 

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