Proposals protecting religious freedom presented to Chile’s constitutional assembly


ROSARIO, Argentina – Over 18,000 people supported a proposal to include a debate on religious freedom and conscience rights in the process of writing Chile’s new constitution, a task given to 155 people elected for the task.

The proposal was presented in October by an interreligious group coordinated by Catholic Bishop Juan Ignacio Gonzalez, a member of Opus Dei. Every Chilean is allowed to make a proposal, but for it to be discussed by the constitutional assembly, at least 15,000 Chileans have to go online and vote in favor of it.

The interreligious proposal includes three articles that are supported by Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, Evangelical, Jewish, and Muslim leaders, as well as three indigenous peoples, including the Mapuche, the largest one in Chile.

One speaks specifically of freedom of conscience and religion, which includes “its free exercise, the freedom to profess, preserve and change religion or beliefs, as well as the right to associate, to profess and disseminate religion or beliefs, both in public and in private, as long as they are not contrary to morals, good customs or public order.”

The second article stipulates that religious denominations and beliefs are recognized as subjects of law and enjoy full autonomy, cooperation agreements are allowed, faith traditions have the right to build new places of worship, “exempt of all kinds of taxes,” and intentional damage to these places and to those exercising their religious rights “shall be considered an infringement of the human rights of those affected.”

Lastly, parents and guardians should have the right to determine their children’s religious, spiritual and moral education.

“The religious denominations present in Chile, the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches, the various evangelical denominations, the Muslim and Jewish communities and three native groups with their beliefs, saw that it was necessary to regulate in a much more concrete way the freedom of worship and conscience,” Gonzales told Crux over the phone on Tuesday.

The initiative will now be discussed by the constitutional assembly, but this does not guarantee the three articles will make it into the final draft, and that document will need to be  approved through yet another referendum.

Gonzales pointed out that an estimated 85 percent of Chile’s total population is represented by the leadership that drafted the initiative, saying this is because “Chileans are by nature, religious. They might not be Catholic or Evangelical, or Muslim, but they are religious and concerned about religious freedom.”

The prelate also claimed that the religious leaders are not asking for “religions to be protected, but for the protection of what religion means in the social order.”

“If we are going to protect the native peoples, who are obviously an essential element of our nationality; if we are going to protect the people who suffer, who are a very important element in our country; we also have to protect the religious fact, which is a social reality that is above all others because it is part of the essence of human nature,” Gonzales said.

The matter of freedom of conscience, the bishop said, might arise if the president-elect carries out his  promise of legalizing abortion and euthanasia, because many religions and faiths believe that human dignity must be protected and guaranteed from conception to natural death, and cannot in conscience take part in an abortion or an assisted suicide.

Gonzales said that the religious leaders fear that faith issues will not be considered important by some members of the constitutional assembly.

“For example, the president of the convention, Elisa Loncón, considers that Christianity is a foreign imposition, an evil present in Chile only because it was part of the invasion process from Europe to America,” he pointed out.

“With this norm, the right of the native peoples to live and practice, individually or collectively, their beliefs is also safeguarded,” the bishop said.

The proposal from the religious leaders is the third one thus far to reach the necessary popular support for consideration. The other two are “Será ley” which seeks to legalize abortion as a constitutional right, and “Con mi plata no,” an initiative aimed at protecting the ownership of pension savings.

Chile’s new constitution is being presented by some as a “reinvention” of the country. It comes after months of protests over several grievances in 2019. 

The Constitutional Convention is the constituent body in charge of drafting a new constitution after a national referendum was held in October 2020. The body met for the first time on July 4, 2021. The draft should take nine months, with a possible extension of three more months. 

Chile’s current constitution was written in 1980, by people chosen by its then military ruler, Augusto Pinochet. It opened the country to mining investment and allowed water rights to be bought and sold. The country prospered by exploiting its natural resources, making it one of Latin America’s richest countries. However, frustrations mounted over inequality with mineral-rich areas becoming “sacrifice zones” of environmental degradation. All of this factored in the  frustration that led to the constitutional referendum.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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