The Lower Chamber of the Mexican Congress recently approved a “Law on Religious Associations and Public Worship” that attempts, at least partially, to restore religious liberties in that country.
The new law recognizes a church’s right to own private property (Art. 16); for its ministers to wear clerical clothing in public; have its legal status recognized by the government (Art. 7); and have a separate legal existence from the state (Art. 1). It also guarantees the individual the right “not to be compelled to contribute with money or goods to support an association, church or any religious group,” nor be compelled to “participate or contribute in the same way in rites, ceremonies, festivals, services or acts of religious cults” (Art. 2(d)). The sixth article of the law establishes that “religious associations are equal before the law in rights and obligations.”
This translates into no special privileges for the Catholic Church or a state-established religion. However, this law still expresses the religious intolerance such as that which took place when the state promoted the predominance of the Catholic Church in the past century. On the negative side, the new law bans religious institutions from owning TV and radio stations or newspapers, allowing only the use of them under certain conditions and licenses (Art. 16, second paragraph). Likewise, public religious worship must have consent of the state (Art. 22).
The new law hinders liberty of association, movement, speech and religious freedom that the Mexican Constitution recognizes. For instance, the new law considers any religious association that has not been registered with the government to be a “punishable infringement.” Clearly such a provision, besides being impracticable, is unconstitutional. The state attributions under the new law go as far as to make it the “arbiter” in conflicts between religious groups!
Despite the above mentioned insufficiencies, the new regime of religious freedom in Mexico is clearly superior to the one in effect until now. The new law amends several articles of the 1917 Mexican Constitution, particularly the Article 130. In its original form the Constitution’s Article 130 established the “intervention” of federal powers in “worship matters and external discipline.” Likewise, it did not recognize the legal status of any religious association; granted the state legislatures the right to establish the “top number” of ministers of certain religious groups; forbade the ministers of these groups from “criticizing” the government; and severely restrained the private property of churches.
Congressman Amador Rodriguez Lozano, president of the Human Rights Committee of the Lower Chamber, commented on the difficulty of dealing and approving a law of this type and defined the issue of church and state relations as “untouchable.”
Rodriguez describes it as a question of “two territories — God’s and Caesar’s — on which the same and free people journeys.” Rodriguez adds that “the Mexican state has learned the importance of recognizing and placing in its strictly spiritual dimension, the role of belief and attitudes of the people’s profound religious faith.”
“The state knows perfectly,” he says, “that the concept of faith is valid in the people, not only in the religious aspect, but in the issues regarding the institutional trust in civil life.”
President Carlos Salinas de Gortari affirmed this by expressing his “respect and support” for all religious groups in that country.
Mañuel Gomez Granados, director of the Mexican Institute of Christian Social Doctrine, which is connected to the Catholic Church, comments that the modifications to Article 130 “will facilitate the development of a new evangelization in the country only if the (Catholic) Church assumes its responsibility; because if it does not, it is irrelevant that the law changes.” The Catholic Church will continue to be “fossilized in some aspects, anchored in the past, without moral strength to transform the people.”1
Referring to evangelization, Gomez Granados adds: “If we are honest people, we will say that the evangelization in our country has been a weak, deficient one, a superficial polish, when evangelization must change the innermost parts of the human being, giving him a lifestyle of total confidence in God, of austerity, or work.”2
Currently, religious plurality in Mexico is expressed by the existence of around 175 different religious groups. The Protestants are, after the Catholics, the second largest group, with 17 million adherents.
“Within the modernization of religious life as a social process,” writes G. de Jesus Huchim Hoyoc, exists a “wide and open religious market which means that every church accepts the challenges of competition, productivity and efficacy. Each denomination will have to demonstrate or reaffirm its competitiveness in proselytism. This is particularly applicable in the case of the Catholic Church.”
Huchim Koyoc continues, “The state has no business protecting the inefficiency of any religious association in keeping or increasing the number of its members (or quota in the religious market). The dynamics of each church, its capability to maintain or increase its participation in such a market, must depend fundamentally on its own effort, and not on some form of state protectionism”3
This way, Mexico advances toward the consolidation of a regime which will allow an authentic and full religious plurality, will strengthen its democratic process and will preserve the civil and political liberties so dear to the Mexican people.
1 David Perez Calleja, El Nacional, July 8, 1992.
3 El Nacional, July14, 1992.