Religion, the Constitution and Your Rights

By Dylan Vernon, Time Come #5, 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 of Trust

On the surface, the signing of the Statement of Agreement of 20 December 2023 is not surprising. In Belize, some 85% of the population identifies with a religious denomination, with some 98% of that being Christian (2010 census). In Belize, both major political parties traditionally support some partnership between the state and religious groups – likely for both religious and electoral reasons. This is most prominent, of course, in the area of education.

However, it is odd that the religious groups that signed the Agreement (the Belize Council of Churches and the Evangelical Association) used the term ‘Church Communities’ when they do not represent all religious groups. (The two images shown accompanied the GoB Press Release). For the religious groups that signed, what were the motivations? Is there some fear (or the creation of the fear) that the ‘supremacy of God’ clause is under grave attack? Or maybe some are concerned that the 2023 census could show an increase from the 15% of the population who identified as non-religious in 2010?

Whatever the motivations behind the Agreement, all religious persons or groups have every constitutional right to advocate for what they want to remain or change in the Constitution. And so do all civil society groups and all people with all their varied interests — including people with no religion. But there are real problems with the ‘state’ putting its signature on such an agreement on behalf of all its citizens.

First, the Agreement generates totally unnecessary problems of trust and process. In essence, the government has signed an agreement on constitutional matters with an interest group during the very constitutional review it has itself mandated. It matters not if the PCC was going to recommend some of the core points stated in the agreement. By signing this Agreement before the review process ends, the government has pre-empted its own Commission that it mandated to report to it. In effect, the government is saying to the people and to the PCC that ‘this one is already decided’.  As such, this Agreement can only generate more doubts about the credibility of the entire constitutional review process. The process matters!  And it matters especially for the deadly serious business of constitutional making.

The pronouncements in the Statement of Agreement also beg the obvious and disturbing question: What else has the government already decided on behalf of the people about what will be in a new or revised constitution?

Religion in a Secular State

But there is a more fundamental problem with government signing the Agreement: Belize is a secular state! Perhaps one of the things that got some religious groups riled up is that the PCC Act (Section 6.2.v) mandates the PCC to safeguard and promote “Belize’s existence as a secular State in which all faiths are treated equally and encouraged to foster national cohesion and unity.”  As innocuous as that is, may it be that this affirmation got some antsy?

If so, it is important to understand what the term ‘secular’ means and what it does not. A secular state is simply one in which (a) everyone has the freedom to practice or change their religious beliefs, or to have none, according to individual conscience, (b) no one’s religious beliefs or lack of them is a reason for discrimination and (c) there is space for all religious groups to participate in society but as separate from state institutions.

Importantly, it is totally wrong to equate secularism with being non-religious or anti-religious. The constitution of a secular state should equally and universally protect the rights and freedoms of both the religious (of any denomination) and the non-religious – both believers and non-believers. The Constitution of Belize does this.

Since independence, Belize has been a secular state by all the three measures listed above – even as the principle of separation of state and church has been tested in the education sector. Unlike the United Kingdom (which privileges the Church of England) and unlike other non-secular states, Belize has never constitutionally recognised just one or more specific religious beliefs nor denominations. This has been in the best interests of Belize’s national unity, of fairness and of democracy.

Above and Beyond

Does the Statement of Agreement, signed on behalf of the people by our government with some selected church groups, not violate the principles of secularism that underpins the Constitution – and that the very PCC Act requires? Based on the non-discrimination clauses in the Constitution, a valid case can be made for discrimination against (a) other religious groups ‘not in the room’ and (b) the 75,000 or more Belizeans who self identify as ‘non-religious’ (15% of the current population).

While several of the points in the Agreement are already stated in the current Constitution, there is no good reason for the government to pre-empt the very PCC it established. As everything in the Constitution, these were open to constitutional review. More mind-bending, however, is that the government also agreed to statements and principles that either expand on these or, worse, are totally new.

For example, in signing the Agreement, the government endorsed the following new interpretation of Preamble (a) of the current Constitution: “This means, in practice, that Belize is not, and will never be, either a theocracy or an atheist humanist society; rather by recognising the Supremacy of God, the nation of Belize acknowledges the limits of government…” (See first paragraph of the Agreement).  Even if the signatories agree with this utterly confusing statement, what about the rights of those who do not even understand it much less agree? Rights are not something that only the majority or some have. And where did this strange wording come from? It is not in the Blu PlanBelize Manifesto.

Also, note that the ‘new’ Ministry of Religious Affairs is prominent in the Agreement and now has “the unique responsibility to preserve and facilitate the unique partnership, implicit in the Belize Constitution, between GoB and the Church…” (point 7). Very, very unique indeed. Actually, the rights and freedoms enjoyed by the religious and religious groups are explicit and not above those of any other individual or group. Even in education, it is legally permissible for a non-governmental group other than a church to operate a private school: for example, Galen University, Horizon Academy, Ocean Academy and Hummingbird Elementary.

In the Agreement, the state goes further in carving out a more ‘unique’ space for ‘the church’ in its political and social relationships in society. For example, at point 8, it states that “we believe that civil society and the Church operate with autonomy…,” deliberately presenting the church as separate from civil society. In reality, religious groups are just one part of civil society, one part of the non-governmental sector. In this regard, it’s instructive that we now have a Ministry of Religious Affairs but there is no Ministry of Civil Society Affairs. If there were one, relations with religious groups would logically fall under it – with all other civil society groupings.

Imagine the outcry there would have been if the government, without any consultation, had signed a similar kind of agreement with a women rights group, or a LGBTQ+ alliance or with a cannabis decriminalisation coalition? And imagine the outcry if any of these would have included constitutional issues and the signing occurred before the conclusion of the constitutional review process?

Equal Rights of Belief for ALL

All this raises the obvious question as to whether the ‘supremacy of God’ clause should be in our Constitution at all? It is my considered view that the statement and the full protection of individual and group religious freedoms do not require a preambular or any declaration of the ‘supremacy of God’ nor a reference to a Creator. Neither does it require a special Statement of Agreement by the state with religious groups.

Even as religious thought has influenced the development of some universal human rights, they are not “gifts” as the Agreement states. Our rights have come largely from centuries of human struggle and hard-won international declarations. In fact, some religious groups have historically opposed particular rights or been late in supporting them. The point is that religious rights and freedoms in Part II of the Constitution do not require a ‘supremacy of God’ clause as a normative basis.

Do those that believe that God is supreme really need that affirmed in a secular people’s constitution? All citizens have the right to believe what they believe in their churches or synagogues or mosques or homes or wherever, but there is no right to impose this on the constitutional public sphere.

Additionally, including the ‘supremacy of God’ clause ignores the thorny reality that ‘God’ means different things to Christian groups and to non-Christian groupings – and it can mean different things even within some of these very groupings. This can foster disunity and conflict, as colonial history and current events so graphically illustrate. It can also embolden those who do have strong religious beliefs to ignore or trample on the constitutional rights and voices of non-religious others, or on the rights of those who just don’t agree with them. In short, the constitution of a secular state should not discriminate in its very opening sentence.

Even as a secular Constitution is not the place for ‘God’, ‘God’ would likely have survived the constitutional review quite intact after all was said and done. So, is it that some in both church and state leadership want even more constitutional space (beyond the Preamble) for religion or, worse, for particular religious beliefs? Do some want the Constitution interpreted how they think their particular God dictates? If so, the Statement of Agreement cannot be viewed as separate from the recent regional and local activism by right-wing church groups to pursue narrow religious beliefs and policy influence through heightened political engagement.

In conclusion, I repeat that the core problem here is not with some in ‘the church’ pursuing their interests. It is with the state’s capitulation!  It is the duty of the Belizean state and the Belizean people to ensure that nothing in the Statement of Agreement, and no amendment to the Constitution it may inspire, is at the expense of the constitutional rights of any citizen in our shared public society of Belize — including the rights of the religious, non-religious and anti-religious. And it cannot be at the expense of the rights of workers, women, indigenous peoples or the LGBTQ+ community. Equal rights for all!

Note: The last two images are from the Society for the Promotion of Education and Research (SPEAR).

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