FOR decades, the Swedish government guaranteed most newborn children three things: a free education, subsidized medical care, and automatic membership in the Church of Sweden.
But that's about to change. A recent ruling, adopted by both national legislators and church officials, is set to break the strong link between church and state, a fundamental - but controversial - part of Swedish society that has existed since the 16th century.
The resolution, which was voted on in August but will not take effect in its entirety until 2000, changes the legal status of the church from a government entity to an independent body. It also makes baptism necessary for membership and takes away the church's mandatory 3 percent annual ''church tax'' that all members were required to pay in the past.
''This is a good decision. We have been waiting years to decide this question and to decide what is right and wrong,'' says Johan Hasslow, a spokesman at the church's headquarters in Uppsala, a town about one hour from the capital, Stockholm.
''We wanted to change the relationship between the church and the government,'' he adds, ''but we don't want to entirely separate the two.''
Today, 87 percent of Sweden's 8.8 million people belong to the church, which is Lutheran. In rural areas, primarily in the north, the number is as high as 98 percent.
Religious makeup changes
But Sweden's ethnic mix is changing. About 75,000 Swedish residents are Muslim, 16,000 Jewish, 3,000 Buddhist, and 3,000 Hindu, according to 1994 government statistics.
Compulsory religion classes in school, which formerly included only Christian teachings, now teach about many religions. And while school prayer is nonexistent, traditional religious songs spanning a number of denominations are common in schools during holiday seasons.
''In a modern society, the state has no reason for showing special favor to a certain denomination. On the contrary, the state should as far as possible remain neutral between the different denominations,'' reads a parliamentary memo summarizing the recent decision.
Citizens in favor of the ruling agree. ''I support the decision because it's a recognition that a large part of the Swedish population is no longer Christian,'' says businesswoman Stella Fajerson. ''The state should be secular. I don't see any reason for the church and state to be connected.''
Previously, children automatically became members of the Church of Sweden, providing that one parent was a member and did not renounce the child's membership in writing within six weeks of birth. But as of January 1996, a baptism ceremony will be required.
All church members are required to pay 3 percent of their annual income to the church. Even nonmembers are levied a 1 percent church tax, by the government, to cover the costs of legal requirements, such as marriage registrations and burials.
Under the new order, only baptized church members will pay the church tax. While the church will retain its property, which has been deemed to be of national historical interest, a committee is still deciding whether the state will continue to help maintain it.
Sweden's special relationship between church and state began in 1523, when King Gustav Vasa became head of both. While serious discussions about separating the two began as early as 1908, the church remained steadfastly against the idea.
Last year, a committee made up of leading church officials and influential politicians sent a report to both legislators and the 251 members of the church's synod, its highest body. In August, a compromise report was drafted and sent to synod members again.
It was accepted by all but 29 members of the synod. ''It was something of a historical moment for us,'' says Carl-Einar Nordling, head of church affairs in Sweden's ministry of public administration.
The bill still must be sent to the Swedish parliament in mid-October, a step considered only a formality. It should be approved in December.
A final, formal vote will take place closer to the 1998 parliamentary elections.
''This proposal is good for the Church of Sweden and [is] a generous one,'' Mr. Nordling says. ''The present relationship violates the principles of religious freedom written in the Swedish Constitution, [which protects citizens from being forced to belong to a religion]. Sooner or later, we had to do something.''
Rule could pit rural against urban
But Mr. Hasslow points out that not all church officials are thrilled about the idea. He worries that the ruling could create friction between congregations in rural and urban areas, as well as cause a severe drop in membership and therefore in funds.
''We have a long tradition of the state and church being connected in Sweden,'' he says. ''If you have a long tradition, people are scared when you break it and create something new. They don't know how it will be in the future.''
But Nordling says the church will always have a leading place in Sweden, regardless of its official status.
''Sweden is not very religious in the traditional sense.'' he says. ''Very few go to Sunday mass, for instance, and many couples are not married and have their babies out of wedlock.
''But I think the Church of Sweden plays an important role in the life of most Swedes anyhow. It represents our roots. It is the most Swedish thing you can think of.''