Mexicans Debate the Structure Of New Church-State Relations

IN Mexico, the "elephant" and the "ants" are squaring off, to use the terminology of the Vatican's envoy to Mexico, Geronimo Prigione.

In January, Mexico officially mended a more than century-old rift between the Roman Catholic Church and the government by rewriting the Constitution to give legal recognition to religions here. But the ever-so-important fine print remains to be spelled out.

In recent weeks, a vigorous debate has erupted over what will be the precise relationship between church and state. The debate has far-reaching ramifications, ranging from tax status to religious education to media access.

"The other churches are worried that the reforms will be hijacked by the Catholic hierarchy," says Roberto Blancarte, president of the Center for Religious Studies in Mexico, a nonsectarian academic research group. "It all comes down to the clarity of a law which is supposed to grant religious liberty but may end up persecuting or creating an inequity between the churches."

There is no official legislative committee yet. No specific laws have been submitted for approval. As the complexity of the project becomes more obvious, the timetable keeps slipping. "Nobody wants to talk about concrete positions yet," confides a lawyer close to the process. Meanwhile, the lobbying is intense.

A prime point of contention is what will qualify as a church under Mexican law. Under the 1917 Constitution, churches here were not recognized as legal entities, they could not own property (edifices became state property), and church officials could not vote. The January reforms grant legal recognition, but it is up to the National Congress to define the terms.

Several Catholic bishops are suggesting that churches be granted different rights based on historical presence. In April, Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo said it would be an "injustice" to give equal legal recognition to religious associations without taking into account the historic weight and number of members of each church or denomination.

Or, as papal representative Prigione put it recently, one doesn't receive "an elephant the same as an ant."

Some European countries handle the issue with a sliding scale of rights and qualifications for a religious organization, says Jorge Adame Goddard, a church-state specialist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

"It's important not to let a group of people attain recognition as a religion which is trying to commit fraud or put commercial interests above religious interests - like some American television evangelicals," Dr. Adame says. But, he adds, "minority religions must be protected from being suffocated by larger churches."

Dr. Blancarte says the government is not competent to make such distinctions. "It's dangerous to get into the area of judging what is a sect and what is a church. Remember, Christians were once a Jewish sect." He advocates treating religious organizations like "the Boy Scouts or a lawyers' association. If they use illegal drugs or commit fraud, prosecute them."

But the lobbying goes on, fueled by concerns that qualifying as a "real" church may also affect media access. Churches here have been banned from owning a radio or television station. Access to private outlets was limited because media owners feared losing their broadcasting licenses. Article 130 of the Constitution prohibited churches from "criticizing" the laws or the government.

The Mormon Church recently proposed a version of the new laws that includes the right to buy a radio or television concession. "The recognition of our legal rights should mean we have more freedom, more openness in our communication with the public," says Horacio Tenorio, president of the Mormon Church in Mexico. The National Forum of Christian Evangelical Churches has requested similar broadcast access rights and next week plans a media workshop for "Christian professionals."

BUT degree of access may depend on qualifying as a "Grade A" religious association. Adame also speculates that air time may be granted, as it is with political parties, based on whether the organizations qualify as bona fide or not. For example, broadcasters are now given the option of paying taxes or giving the government free air time. Will the government allocate some of that time to religious groups?

The recent constitutional reforms also open the door to the classroom. Public schools are still off-limits, but private schools can offer religious teaching now. At a press conference May 12, Methodist Bishop Raul Ruiz Avila argued that these lessons must be optional and without academic credit. He recommends sanctions against "school authorities that obligate students to take a religious class or equivalent."

Catholic officials have long pushed for greater presence in public schools. They argue that the government should allow parents to decide what they want their children to be taught in school.

Another area of contention and ambiguity concerns the taxing of Mexican churches. The general expectation is that property and activity directly related to the worship process - the mass or weekly service - will be exempt from taxation. But any other revenue-generating activity - private schools, broadcasting, publication sales - may be taxed.

But there are many "what ifs" unanswered. For example, the collection at a church service is not taxable. But is a donation of a car or a building taxable? Are publications relating to worship sold within the main church tax-exempt? Must taxes be paid on a minister or priest's home, an adjacent seminary, or administrative building? If the priest also teaches in a privately run religious school, what part of his salary is taxable?

Blancarte keeps in close touch with government officials involved in the reform process. He wryly observes that when President Carlos Salinas de Gortari declared three years ago he would modernize church-state relations, "Salinas and his advisers had no idea how they were going to do it. And they're still struggling."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Mexicans Debate the Structure Of New Church-State Relations
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today