Mexicans Debate the Structure of New Church-State Relations

Article excerpt

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. …