JRCLS National Meeting

All that is necessary for unity in a helpful coalition is a common belief that there is a right and wrong in human behavior that has been established by a Supreme Being.  All who believe that should unite to preserve and strengthen the freedom to advocate and practice our separate religious beliefs, whatever they are. 

I consider this a unique opportunity to speak to leaders and citizens of Mexico about the vital importance of religious freedom.

I speak under the sponsorship of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society, an international group of over 14,000 lawyers in 265 chapters worldwide, including 8 chapters in Mexico.  These lawyers have united under the name of J. Reuben Clark, a Mormon leader and distinguished American diplomat whose career included 2½ years as the United States Ambassador in Mexico.  This Society’s mission statement affirms “the strength brought to the law by a lawyer’s personal religious conviction.”  It commits its members to “strive through public service and professional excellence to promote fairness and virtue founded upon the rule of law.”

In this 100th anniversary of Mexico’s 1917 Constitution my message seeks to further all Mexican citizens’ knowledge of their basic constitutional rights, with special attention to the subject of religious freedom in Mexico.

I.Religious Freedom in the United States and Mexico

Religious freedom is an essential protection for the civil rights that guarantee freedom and democracy.  This is the case both in the United States, with whose laws I am most familiar, and in Mexico.

Religious freedom is one of the supremely important motivating and founding principles in the United States’ Constitution, and it is guaranteed in the constitutions of all 50 of its states.  A federal law formally declares “the right to freedom of religion undergirds the very origin and existence of the United States.”   This places the freedom of religion and the closely related freedoms of speech and press foremost among the most vital civil rights.

Religious freedom is no less important in protecting the rights and freedoms of the Mexican people.  The 1917 Mexican Constitution formalized the principle of separation of church and state in the context of a different history and culture, but those differences only demonstrate different ways to implement the essentials of religious freedom.  Religious freedom is vital in Mexico.

II.Religious Liberty Rights in Mexico

The religious freedom of Mexican citizens is well recognized in the Constitution of 1917, and has been further elaborated in Mexico’s 1992 law governing religious associations.  Without describing the legal technicalities, these are the essential protections of religious freedom in Mexico:

  1. Liberty of conscience—the right to freely choose religion or no religion.
  2. Liberty of expression in public and private—the right to share with others one’s beliefs, ideas, thoughts and opinions about religion.
  3. The right to assemble and teach religious doctrine and to practice religious ceremonies.
  4. The right to religious association—persons can come together to found a religion or join an already existing religion or change their religious affiliation.
  5. The right of students to receive religious instruction that is consistent with the convictions of their parents.

All Mexican citizens should be aware of these important rights and actively teach them to their children and their associates.  The ability to defend religious freedom presupposes a solid understanding of such rights.  If citizens are only dimly aware of the rights afforded under the Mexican Constitution and laws, protecting religious freedom and other essential rights is difficult or impossible.  For example, now that the national initiative to authorize same-sex marriage has been defeated in the Mexican Senate, it seems likely that this initiative will soon be pursued with state legislators.  That will give additional opportunities for citizens to examine and make their voices heard on the various risks that laws authorizing same-sex marriage would pose for the traditional culture of Mexico, especially if there is no protection of the right to maintain religious beliefs affirming traditional marriage.  More of that later.

III.Importance of Religion

Before I discuss some specifics of religious freedom and what concerned citizens should be doing about it, I reaffirm a basic truth that is increasingly challenged:  religious teachings, practices and organizations are important to a free society and are therefore deserving of special legal protection.  Here I refer to a recent compilation of brilliant essays published by Oxford University Press under the title The Future of Religious Freedom.  In his editor’s introduction, Professor Allen D. Hertzke summarizes this truth:  “Religious liberty, violated by regimes and slighted by rights advocates, serves as a linchpin of human progress and thriving societies.”   Why is it so essential?  Religious voices proclaim moral absolutes, and without those absolutes—even if not universally accepted—many individuals lack the direction for and commitment to progress.

Another recent book by a respected author elaborates the importance of religion for the overall good.  With abundant background and scholarly citations, it lists these contributions:

  • Believers give more to charity.
  • Believers live longer and are healthier.
  • Believers are more likely to be happy.
  • Believers are less likely to commit crime.
  • Believers contribute to “social capital” (service and other contributions to society). 

IV.Fundamentals of Religious Freedom

I turn now to a discussion of some fundamentals of religious freedom, which apply to Mexico as well as its neighbors to the North.

The free exercise of religion involves both the right to choose religious beliefs and affiliations and the right to exercise or practice those beliefs without government restraint.  At the same time, government must have powers to regulate some actions based on religious beliefs.  Otherwise, for example, the government could not protect its citizens’ persons or property from neighbors whose religious principles compel practices that threaten others’ health or personal safety.  These problems are not simple, and the supreme courts of the United States and Canada have struggled to identify how much a government can restrict religious practices that could be a threat to others.

For example, consider this case now before the Supreme Court of Canada.  An Aboriginal tribe in Canada believes that the grizzly-bear spirit lives in the mountains in the southeast part of the province of British Columbia.  They therefore oppose a proposed ski development, believing that the skiers will drive away the grizzly-bear spirit and make their religious rituals meaningless.  Their appeal from a lower court judgment favoring government power is supported by 14 religious organizations that argue for a broad interpretation of religious rights.  A Chamber of Commerce opposes, fearing that similar claims by other tribes and groups in that diverse nation will retard land development. 

The greatest difficulties in balancing religious freedom against other claims—difficulties that are beginning to emerge in Mexico as well—are circumstances where there are perceived conflicts between religious freedom and the popular appeal of newly alleged civil rights such as those asserted by same-gender couples who desire the privileges of marriage.  This poses a conflict between what religious rights should protect and what so-called equal rights are coming to demand.

V.  Threats to Religious Freedom

Despite specific constitutional and legal guarantees of religious freedom and the free exercise of religion, in many countries of the world (including Mexico), the traditional extent of such guarantees is now being challenged.  The book described earlier, The Future of Religious Freedom, addresses what it calls the

“profound paradox of our age:  at the very time that the value of religious freedom is mounting, the international consensus behind it is weakening, assaulted by authoritarian regimes, attacked by theocratic movements, violated by aggressive social policies, and undermined by growing ethnic hostility or ignorance.” 

Challenges to the exercise of religious freedom can take many forms:  executive enforcement actions, legislative law-making, judicial decisions, and cultural or societal pressures.  A common and dangerous objective of such challenges is to try to minimize or exclude religious positions that are contrary.  One technique employed by those who would banish religious perspectives from public debate or cultural discussion is to label those views as “bigoted” or “homophobic.”  Other techniques label as “religious oppression” such legitimate proposals as bringing Mexican law into harmony with that of other countries by permitting religious ministers or organizations to express religious views in public policy debates.

On the issue of same-sex marriage, there may be official actions that seek to penalize the expression of religiously held beliefs that oppose same-sex marriage.  We read of criminal charges in Sweden and hate crimes proceedings in Canada against ministers who preached the wrongfulness of homosexuality.   In Mexico, some segments of society would seek to punish parents for discrimination in teaching their children sincerely held doctrines related to same-sex marriage.  Similarly, the media, employers, or the culture at large may label the expression of religious beliefs about traditional marriage as “discriminatory” or “homophobic.”  The effect of these governmental or non-governmental efforts is to try to delegitimize religious expression to eliminate religious beliefs from the public debate about what is best for the people of Mexico.

The marriage union of a man and a woman has been the teaching of religions throughout the world and the core legal definition and practice of marriage for thousands of years.  Those who seek to change the foundation of marriage should not be allowed to pretend that those who defend the ancient order are bigoted or trampling on civil rights.  Supporters of traditional marriage are exercising their constitutional right to defend the institution of marriage—an institution of transcendent importance that they, along with countless others of many persuasions, feel conscientiously obliged to protect.

In the United States, we have already seen a significant deterioration in the definition and legal position of the family.  In an essay titled “The Judicial Assault on the Family” Dr. Allan W. Carlson of the Howard Center reviews this subject.  He concludes:

“The broad trend has been from a view of marriage as a social institution with binding claims of its own and with prescribed rules for men and women into a free association, easily entered and easily broken, with a focus on the needs of individuals.  

It is important to remember that the trend in the United States is not seen in most other countries.  At this point, fewer than 25 of the world’s nearly 200 countries have authorized same-sex marriage.  True, some others have granted same-sex couples many of the legal incidents associated with marriage, but many of these continue to limit formal marriage to male-female unions.

The Mexican Constitution does not clearly define the nature of family and the requirements for marriage.  In this circumstance, any federal or state legislation passed or proposed that affects these subjects must be closely watched.  Experts interested in preserving the integrity of the traditional man/woman definition of marriage must be alert, and religious organizations and members must be ready to make their voices heard as these issues are considered by federal and state lawmakers and executive officials.  The issues involved are sensitive and complex, and need to be addressed through democratic political processes that take the centuries of religious wisdom into account.  Whatever the outcomes, it is imperative that religious freedom is observed as society strives to achieve fairness for all.

The J. Reuben Clark Law Society chapters in Guadalajara, Merida, Mexico City, Monterrey, Puebla, Queretaro, Tijuana, Tuxtla Gutierrez and others soon-to-be formed, can perform an especially valuable role in this.  The Religious Freedom Committee of this Society meets two times a month by conference call to discuss ways of promoting religious freedom both with Society members and with a broader faith-based non-lawyer population.

VI.What Citizens Can Do

The preservation of religious freedom depends upon public understanding and support for this vital freedom.  It depends upon the value the public attaches to the teachings of right and wrong in churches, synagogues, and mosques.  Believers and non-believers must be helped to understand that it is faith in God—however defined—that translates religious teachings into the moral behavior that benefits a nation.  As more and more citizens recognize the benefit to society of religious teachings, the importance of religious freedom will be better understood and supported.  In this way, government leaders and citizens will be persuaded that religious leaders who preach right and wrong make a unique contribution to society and should therefore have special legal protection.

It is important for every Mexican citizen to understand the basic religious freedoms protected by the Constitution and laws of Mexico.  All should be vigilant to identify any attempt to limit or eliminate religious freedoms, including the expression of sincerely held religious beliefs.  Once such efforts are identified, it is important for Mexican citizens to respectfully and clearly cause their voices to be heard on these issues.  This can be done most effectively in combination with others of similar opinions.  The favorable impact of the recent demonstrations against same-sex marriage should not be forgotten.

This proposal that we unite more effectively does not require any examination of the doctrinal differences among various Christian denominations, or among Jews and Muslims.  All that is necessary for unity in a helpful coalition is a common belief that there is a right and wrong in human behavior that has been established by a Supreme Being.  All who believe that should unite to preserve and strengthen the freedom to advocate and practice our separate religious beliefs, whatever they are.  We must walk together on the same path for a time in order to secure our freedom to pursue our separate paths when that is necessary according to our own beliefs.

As we make our voices heard, we must remember these three fundamentals of Christian communication:

  • We must always speak with love and with understanding and compassion toward our adversaries.
  • We must seek fairness for all.
  • We must be wise in our political participation, carefully observing Mexican law in political discourse, demonstrations, and public expressions.

In conclusion, I reaffirm that as religious persons we should insist on our constitutional right and duty to exercise our religion, to vote our consciences on public issues, and to participate in elections and in debates in the public square and the halls of justice.  These are the rights of all citizens and they are also the rights of religious leaders and religious organizations.  In this circumstance, it is imperative that those of us who believe in God and in the reality of right and wrong unite more effectively to protect our religious freedom to preach and practice our faith in God and the principles of right and wrong He has established.