Pavez v. Chile
International human rights law protects the rights of churches and religious organizations to decide who teaches their beliefs to the next generation. Unlike in the United States, many government schools in Chile offer religion classes taught by educators who are certified by the relevant religious authorities. Sandra Pavez was a long-time teacher of the Catholic faith at a government school in San Bernardo, Chile. After Ms. Pavez entered a same-sex relationship in violation of Catholic canon law, the Diocese of San Bernardo revoked her certification to teach Catholicism. Although Ms. Pavez remained at the school, and was even promoted to a more prestigious position, she sued the Diocese. After losing in the Chilean court system, Ms. Pavez filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, claiming that Chile had violated her right to “no arbitrary interference in private life,” found in the American Convention on Human Rights. Becket has filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the right of religious groups to choose who may teach the faith to the next generation of believers is both essential to religious freedom and protected by the American Convention and many other international human rights treaties.
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Freedom to choose qualified teachers
Even in countries without constitutional separation between church and state, religious organizations have the right to choose their teachers. As a predominantly Catholic country, Chile offers religion classes on the Catholic faith in many of its government schools, but as a matter of religious freedom and autonomy, the local Catholic bishop must be able to certify who is qualified to teach those classes.
Disunion with the Church
Sandra Pavez was a long-time religion teacher at a government school in San Bernardo, Chile. In 2007, Ms. Pavez told the Diocese of San Bernardo that she was in a same-sex relationship. Because this violated Catholic canon law, the governing body of laws of the Catholic Church, the Diocese revoked Ms. Pavez’s certification to teach the Catholic faith in her school. However, the school retained Ms. Pavez as a teacher and immediately promoted her to the more prestigious position of Inspector General.
Despite this promotion, Ms. Pavez sued the Diocese in the Chilean courts, which correctly recognized that the Diocese had authority to determine who was qualified to teach its faith, and that Ms. Pavez had been promoted rather than harmed by that decision. On October 28, 2008, Ms. Pavez filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, claiming that Chile had violated her right to “no arbitrary interference in private life,” found in the American Convention on Human Rights. The Commission ruled in favor of Ms. Pavez on December 7, 2018, and Chile appealed to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which accepted the case on September 11, 2019, and set the case for public hearing on May 12, 2021 in San José, Costa Rica.
Religious autonomy at home and abroad
Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, arguing that religious groups must be free to make decisions about who may teach their faith to the next generation of believers. Becket’s brief cites Article 12 of the American Convention on Human Rights, Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other leading human rights treaties, which all include robust language protecting religious freedom for individuals and communities. Becket’s brief takes a comparative approach, demonstrating how many Latin American and European countries, as well as the United States and Canada, have recognized the principle of religious autonomy and protected the right of religious organizations to choose their leaders and teachers. And Becket also points out that countries that violate religious autonomy tend to violate other human rights as well, especially the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals.
On April 13, 2022, the Inter-American Court released its decision in favor of Ms. Pavez. The decision failed to grapple with the importance of religious autonomy, and it ignored the consensus of the international human rights community that religious groups have a right to decide who is qualified to teach their faith to the next generation without fear of government interference.
Becket’s action in this case is part of a series of similar cases Becket has participated in worldwide, including in international tribunals such as the European Court of Human Rights and in the United States courts. In the case of Fernández Martínez v. Spain, Becket filed an amicus brief arguing that the principle of religious autonomy protected the Catholic Church’s right to not renew the contract of religion teacher who had joined a public campaign opposing their beliefs. In 2014, the European Court adopted this approach, upholding the Church’s freedom to choose who is qualified to teach the faith. And in the case of Sindicatul “Pastorul cel bun” v. Romania, Becket filed a similar brief arguing that churches, synagogues, and other religious organizations have a right to order their internal affairs without government interference. In 2013, the European Court upheld the Romanian Orthodox Church’s right of religious autonomy over the right of dissident priests to create a trade union.
In 2012 and 2020, Becket won similar cases at the United States Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC and Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru, in which the Court ruled that religious schools have the right to select teachers of their faiths.
At both the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Becket has advocated for the same standard to apply internationally, so that no religious group will lose their ability to choose their leaders and teachers, a right which is broadly recognized in international human rights law.
Importance to Religious Liberty:
- Religious Communities— Religious groups should be fully empowered to select their priests, rabbis, ministers and other religious teachers free from government interference. The Supreme Court has acknowledged this right in the United States, but the same robust protections are fundamental to religious freedom internationally.