Mexico's Churches Dispute Details Of New Law on State and Religion

Law gives official recognition to religions, but critics say it also gives the Interior Ministry arbitrary power over the internal life of churches

A NEW law intended to launch Mexico into a era of clearer church-state relations is being swept up in a tempest of controversy.

"This boat is taking on water fast," says Roberto Blancarte, president of the Center for Religious Studies in Mexico, an nonsectarian academic research group. "Neither the Catholic hierarchy nor most of the other religions are satisfied with this law."

The Law of Religious Associations and Public Worship, passed July 15, fills in the details of the constitutional reforms initiated by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in January.

For decades, governments here refused to recognize the existence of the Roman Catholic Church or any other church. Church officials could not vote. Church land was government property. Churches operated in a legal vacuum because of what state officials saw as political meddling and "excessive" property ownership.

But as they emerge from legal limbo, churches are finding themselves subject to new rules defining the roles of church and state. And the Catholic hierarchy, in particular, finds this objectionable.

The new law gives "excessive power to the state" by granting "discretionary power to the Interior Ministry over a series of aspects of the internal life of churches," complained Abelardo Alvarado Alcantara, auxiliary bishop of Mexico's Archdiocese, in a press conference last week.

Church property ownership is now limited to land and buildings "indispensable" to religious activities. "Who will say what's indispensable? The Interior Ministry," Mr. Blancarte says.

The most recent issue of Nuevo Criterio, an official Catholic publication, suggests that the Vatican withhold diplomatic ties with Mexico until the law is corrected. Ironically, notes Blancarte, Mr. Salinas "rushed these reforms through in an effort to win Vatican recognition," before the Pope visits Mexico this fall.

Catholic officials also are upset by the continued ban on ownership of media enterprises. But the smaller, less wealthy denominations here praise the clearer guidelines on media access.

"A complete opening would have been counterproductive," says Alberto Montalvo, president of the National Forum of Evangelical Christian Churches, a largely Pentecostal organization. "The Catholic Church could buy up more radio and television stations than us, then restrict our access. This way we can by space and time competitively."

But non-Catholic churches do object to other aspects of the legislation. For example, to qualify as a legal church or "religious association," a group must have been active in Mexico for at least five years and must have "well-known roots" in society. The group also must have "sufficient property" to meet church needs.

"How do you define "well-known roots" or "sufficient property?" And who decides if you meet these requirements?" wonders Raul Ruiz Avalia, a Methodist bishop and president of the Mexican Brotherhood of Evangelists. The requisites are "dangerous limitations on human rights" which discriminate against new religious movements, he says.

"In business terms," Blancarte says, "the government is declaring Mexico a closed market to all new religious movements."

The new law grants church officials the right to vote but prohibits them from holding elected or public office unless they formally leave their church post and wait five years. Bishop Ruiz notes that this law supposes all church organizations have a hierarchical structure and ignores the reality of Protestant lay ministry.

Another ambiguity Ruiz finds troubling is the article supposed to prohibit job discrimination. One cannot be denied work on the basis of religion, it reads, "except in cases foreseen in this and other applicable ordinances."

Ruiz says, "It's not clear what these cases and ordinances are."

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