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

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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. …