By Dave Miller
LA PAZ, Bolivia (FR) – “As a Christian and as a lawyer, I believe that one of the greatest contributions I can make to the evangelization of our people is to work for an environment of broad religious liberty, where the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ can be preached, without interference, for the benefit of the whole country.”
So states Dr. Pedro C. Moreno, 29, an attorney in La Paz, Bolivia. To fulfill his goal, Moreno has been working since September of 1990 to organize the first chapter of the Rutherford Institute on South American soil.
Founded in 1982, the Rutherford Institute is a non-profit organization dedicated to defense of religious liberty. It provides legal services, without charge, to persons suffering discrimination or persecution for their religious beliefs. Priorities include preserving free, public speech on religious issues, protecting the constitutional rights of churches and religious organizations and supporting the sanctity of all human life. The Institute named Dr. Moreno its South American representative last year, hoping eventually to expand into every country in the region.
The La Paz lawyer will have his work cut out for him in Bolivia, a country with a history of religious intolerance. Until 1906, for example, “proselytism” was a criminal offense. As recently as 1949, six Baptist evangelists, one a Canadian missionary, were beaten to death by an anti-Protestant mob in Mercamaya, a small town near Oruro. Sporadic cases of religious persecution – beatings, vandalism, and job discrimination – continue to the present.
Official discrimination against non-catholic “sects” continues as well. Though President Jaime Paz Zamora has privately assured evangelical church leaders that he welcomes their presence in the country, members of his administration are proposing rigid controls on the activities of Protestant churches. The regulations would require non-catholic entities to register each member’s name and address with the government. The Under-secretary for Religious Affairs would review the doctrinal beliefs of Protestant denominations before granting them authorization to hold public meetings or plant new congregations.
Moreno points out that the proposed restrictions not only seriously hamper Christians from fulfilling the Great Commission, but are patently unconstitutional. A graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University and a former advisor in the Bolivian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he is keenly aware of the importance of religious freedom in democratic society.
In an address entitled “Religious Liberty, the Foundation of all other Freedoms,” that Moreno delivered at Bolivia’s first Presidential Prayer Breakfast in January of 1990, he proposed a constitutional amendment which would stop government interference in religion. In that speech, he quoted his nation’s founder, Simon Bolivar, who firmly believed in this constitutional principle. “The state cannot govern the conscience of its subjects,” wrote Bolivar, “nor grant reward or punishment, because God is its only Authority.”
Bolivar’s ideals coincide with the legal philosophy of the Rutherford Institute, which traces its judicial tradition to Samuel Rutherford, a 17th century Scottish scholar. Rutherford is remembered for his resistance to the divine right of kings, a prevailing social doctrine in his day. In his pivotal book, Lex Rex, Rutherford argued that all men – monarchs included – are subject to the law, regardless of their station in society. Rutherford’s ideal became a foundation stone for the development of democracy in Europe and the New World.
American constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, concerned that political and social forces around the world are threatening the basic human rights of religious liberty and freedom of conscience, founded the Rutherford Institute eight years ago. The organization now has affiliates in 30 states in the U.S. and 8 foreign countries, notably in Latin America and Eastern Europe. Dr. Moreno left his position as General Secretary of the Social Emergency Fund to establish Rutherford’s South American branch.
To date he has recruited 18 lawyers interested in working to defend religious liberty in Bolivia, where discrimination continues against non-catholics. Reports have surfaced of protestant teachers fired from public schools because of their religious beliefs. In some cases, students have been forced to accept baptism, contrary to their convictions, in order to continue their studies. One of the Institute’s major emphases is to educate persons to exercise their constitutional rights, in hopes of ending such illegal abuses.
“In this manner, we can accomplish an effective work in favor of religious liberty both here and throughout South America,” says Moreno who has made contact with attorneys from Argentina to Colombia who have expressed a desire to cooperate in Institute activities.
Anyone wishing to obtain more information about the Rutherford Institute’s services may do so by writing: Dr. Pedro Moreno San Juan, The Rutherford Institute, Casilla 12754, La Paz, Bolivia.