Relations, Social Issues and Politics in Mexico
By Kent Paterson
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 [proposed] 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 the daily La Jornada, 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.
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.
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.
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
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 recently, 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 the 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." ----------
The Senate proposed reforms, to the first paragraph
of Article 24 of the Mexican Constitution, are as follows (in red):
"Artículo 24. Toda persona tiene derecho a la
libertad de convicciones éticas, de conciencia y de religión, y a tener o adoptar en su caso, la de su agrado.
Esta libertad incluye el derecho de participar, individual o colectivamente, tanto en público como en privado, en
las ceremonias, devociones o actos de culto respectivo, siempre que no constituyan un delito o falta penados por la ley. Nadie podrá utilizar los actos públicos de expresión de esta libertad con fines políticos,
de proselitismo o de propaganda política."
To date, Article 24 states in paragraph one:
24. Todo hombre es libre para profesar la creencia religiosa que más le agrade y para practicar las
ceremonias, devociones o actos del culto respectivo, siempre que no constituyan un delito o falta penados por la ley."
---------- Frontera NorteSur (FNS) Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico
is the editor of Frontera NorteSur. Reprinted with authorization from Frontera NorteSur, a free, on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news source.