In the United States, evangelical leaders have been at the forefront of pushing prayer in public schools. But in Mexico, they are in the vanguard in opposing it. While the so-called narco war and economic distress are generally regarded as the top two issues in this year’s electoral races, fundamental issues of church, the state and religion are also swirling around the political scene. A flash point is the Mexican Congress’ recent approval of changes to Article 24 of the Mexican Constitution.
Seemingly innocuous, the reform guarantees the right to practice religion in “public as well as private” places. Supported by President Felipe Calderon, the reform was passed last December by Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies just as the country was shutting down for the long winter holiday break. In March, as Mexico was gearing up for another extended holiday season, the Senate followed suit.
According to La Jornada daily, National Action Party (PAN) Senator Sergio Perez Mota justified the reform as a necessary one to prevent Mexico from sinking into a "lay state” that curtails “essential freedoms.”
Although the reform also contains language that defends the secular character of the Mexican State, opponents contend it could open the door to religious instruction in public schools.
On a recent day in Ciudad Juarez, members of the Lay Mexico Civic Forum gathered on the downtown plaza to pass out leaflets and collect signatures on letters calling on the Chihuahua State Legislature to reject the constitutional reform.
“If a person wants to teach his or her child a Christian education, then let him or her go to a Christian church,” said Lay Mexico Civic Forum member Sal Coronado. Introducing religion into the public schools, Coronado insisted, could lead to discrimination, religious bullying and academic complications.
“What are they going to teach?” Coronado asked. “The Catholic, the Mormon or the Christian (Protestant) religion?” Holding aloof banners, Coronado and fellow activists greeted a steady stream of people stopping by their table to ask questions and sign the letters to Chihuahua lawmakers.
Backed by Protestant churches, the Lay Mexico Civic Forum has shown an impressive capacity to mobilize supporters, turning out thousands of people in street demonstrations across the country in recent months. For the congressional reform to become part of the Mexican Constitution, a majority of Mexican states still have to approve it. In May, the state legislatures of Baja California and Michoacan joined the state of Morelos in shooting down the reform.
Critics charged that the Congressional action was undertaken without adequate public discussion, and unneeded in a country that already guarantees religious freedom. Victor Silva, president of the Michoacan State Legislature and a representative of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), said public forums and consultations should have preceded the federal legislative action. "For this reason we are not going along with it,” Silva was quoted in La Jornada.
Earlier writing on Catholic.net, Guillermo Gazanni Espinoza contended that Article 24 reform opponents from center-left political parties were mistaken in declaring that the change was done to benefit the Catholic hierarchy or lay the groundwork for the Pope’s Mexico visit last March.
According to the Council of Catholic Analysts of Mexico, the reform, as proposed in the Chamber of Deputies by the PRI’s Jose Ricardo Rodriguez Pescador late last year, was merely meant to bring the language of the Mexican Constitution in line with Article 12 of the American Convention of Human Rights, a section of the hemispheric agreement upholding religious liberty.
Particular details of language and political intent aside, the Article 24 controversy cuts much deeper than the polemic over constitutional reform. The issue spotlights shifting political tendencies, deep changes in Mexican society and culture, rekindled church-state flirtations and the hard imperatives of the 2012 elections.
At stake is the lay character of the Mexican state, which arose from historic 19th century showdowns between liberals and conservatives that curbed the power of the Roman Catholic Church, regarded by liberal forces as an institution tied in with the system of domination and exploitation dating to the Spanish colonial period.
Mexican clergy have long been banned from political involvement, but rapprochements between successive presidential administrations from both the PRI and PAN parties and the Vatican have revived controversies over the Catholic Church’s role in politics in recent years.
The Pope’s March visit to Guanajuato, an event attended by all the presidential candidates, only further solidified this trend in the view of many analysts.
Likewise fanning church-state controversies are conflicts over gay marriage, sex and abortion. The legalization of early term abortions and gay marriages in Mexico City during the past few years under center-left PRD administrations produced a political backlash in other Mexican states- still referred to as “La Provincia” by some capital city residents. In historically conservative states like Aguascalientes, women have even faced criminal prosecutions for having abortions.
In this broader context, the Article 24 fight erupted on the political landscape. “The parties want votes, and there are issues they won’t touch because they might lose votes, including issues of abortion, school prayer and drug legalization,” said Armide Valverde, principal of Ciudad Juarez’s Alta Vista High School. A career public educator, Valverde endorsed secularism as one of the pillars of the Mexican education system. “There’s no reason for (religion) to be part of education,” Valverde said. “That’s why the Church exists.”
Whether the candidates like it or not, hot-button social issues are popping up on the campaign trail this year. Speaking at Mexico City’s private La Salle University last week, conservative PAN presidential candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota fielded touchy questions from students about gay marriage, abortion and drug legalization. The questioners hailed from an age demographic that could be the decisive vote in the 2012 elections.
Mexico’s only female presidential candidate in a contest with three men, Vazquez Mota appeared to have attempted to stake out a middle ground response by not directly answering the specific question about gay marriage, saying instead that she was “absolutely respectful” of individual sexual orientations, according to report of the encounter in Proceso’s Apro news service.
On the abortion question, the former Calderon administration official defined her position as “pro-life,” but quickly added that she was against criminalizing women who got abortions. As for marijuana and other illegal drugs, Vazquez Mota affirmed that she was open to a debate but worried about going down the road to legalization before strengthening government, law enforcement and justice institutions.
Finally, Protestant/Catholic divergences are evident on matters like Article 24. While Mexico is still a majority Catholic country, more and more Mexicans, like other Latin Americans, are joining different Protestant sects. The Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Methodists and followers of the Jalisco mega-church Luz del Mundo, among others, have a firm and growing base across the country. For many Protestants, the Article 24 reform threatens a return to Catholic domination and discrimination against their own faith.
At the Lay Mexico Civic Forum event in Ciudad Juarez, a shoeshine man sat in front of the activists’ table. Taking time to chat with a reporter, the man declined to give his name, not because he was “afraid,” he insisted, but because divulging his identity would be a vain act that takes away attention from God. Summing up the posture of many Article 24 opponents, the man pulled out an old phrase from his linguistic hat: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Kent Paterson edits Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news sponsored by the Center for Latin American and Border Studies, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico