Spain's parliament opened debate this week on a controversial education bill that modifies state support for religious instruction. While the bill largely upholds protections already in place, many of the country's Catholics have loudly denounced it, saying it would diminish parents' rights to educate children according to their values.
Some observers contend that many Spanish Catholics, who have witnessed the Zapatero government legalize gay marriage and stem-cell research, may oppose the legislation primarily because they are anxious about the government creating a fully secular state.
At a rally organized by the Catholic Church and the opposition Popular Party (PP), hundreds of thousands turned out last weekend to protest the bill, but some demonstrators seemed confused about exactly what the changes would be.
Amid chants of "Zapatero resign," Ana Fernández, a young teacher, claimed, "They want to get rid of the religion course."
In fact, the proposed Organic Education Law (or LOE) retains the requirement that all public schools offer Catholic religion classes. It also would continue to subsidize private Catholic schools (for more than 2 billion euros annually), safeguard the Catholic bishops' right to select the courses' instructors, and makes the state pay those teachers' salaries.
While the proposed law covers a broad range of topics, recommending a mandatory civic ethics course and requiring foreign language instruction for all students beginning in elementary school, religious education has dominated public discussion of the proposed reform.
This emphasis stems in part from the prominent role of the Spanish Bishops' Conference, which instructed priests to urge protest participation in their sermons and which has waged an aggressive anti-legislation media campaign.
And groups like the National Catholic Confederation of Parents (CONCAPA) have said that the proposed law discriminates against students who opt for the class by making them, in effect, work more.
The proposed law would neither allow religious instruction courses to be graded nor require students opting out of such classes to enroll in alternatives and maintain an equivalent course load. CONCAPA Vice President Guillermo Pérez Bonmati, a protest organizer, says if the religion courses remain elective, "there is no guarantee that students will take them."
This objection fuels critics' suspicions that the march was largely a church- and PP-engineered assault on the government. With 3 billion euros of government funding going to the Catholic church or religious schools, Spain's financing of the church is some of the most generous in the EU.
For Julian Casanova, a history professor at the University of Zaragoza, the education bill is an excuse for a political attack. "The church has connected its educational mobilization to political mobilization. It's a battle they've joined with the PP, based on their shared interests. They tried to whip up outrage over gay marriage and it didn't work. Now they're using education."
Although Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero met with demonstration organizers on Thursday to discuss their differences, grounds for compromise seem to be eroding.
At a press conference last week, Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said, "Those who say that the LOE denies the rights of parents to choose their children's education are simply not telling the truth."