Monday, February 27, 2012

Religious freedom in Mexico: A halfway reform

Mexico is getting ready to reform its Constitution to openly recognize religious freedom. If this change becomes a reality, it will be historic although insufficient. Because the proposed modifications to article 24 of the Magna Carta indeed admit to this fundamental human right, but with limitations. The reform has, nevertheless, made its first in the Chamber of Deputies and has already unleashed a heated national controversy.
This past Thursday December 15, 2011, the whole lower chamber voted favourably for a new wording of this article 24. It establishes that “every person has the right to the freedom of convictions regarding ethics, conscience and religion, and to have or adopt, whichever applies, that which is to his/her liking.”
We are dealing with a much more extensive version, from a legal point of view, than the one currently in force and according to which: “all people are free to profess their chosen religious belief and to practice the respective ceremonies and acts of devotion or worship, as long as they do not constitute a crime or infraction that is punishable by law.”
In these terms and according to the wording of the Mexican Constitution, it only recognizes the freedom of worship. Nothing more. As a result, the MP José Ricardo López Pescador, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), presented the reform project on March 18, 2010. Theoretically his proposal was voted on, on Thursday 15th, but only in part.
The original initiative put forward by López Pescador took into account three items: it recognized the right of every individual to the freedom of conscience and religion; it revoked the passage according to which public acts of faith required a special permit; and it established that the State needed to respect the right of parents to guarantee that their children receive religious and moral education, in accordance with their own convictions.
But the one that was finally authorized was very different. The deputies deleted, corrected and added to the initial project. In summary, they indeed recognized religious freedom, but with obvious limitations. They included a section which states that “nobody may make use of public acts of expression of this freedom with political, solicitation or political propaganda purposes.”
They decided to remove from the reform the passage regarding a parent's decision to educate their children according to their convictions and they left intact the following statement: the religious acts of public worship will usually be celebrated in places of worship. Those which are celebrated on an exceptional basis outside of these will be subject to regulatory law.”
When the Chamber of Deputies voted favourably for the reform, Mexican and international media reported that because of it, acts of public worship may take place outside of the country’s places of worship without requiring the corresponding permission of the civil authorities, as has been the case until now. But this interpretation turns out to be inaccurate.
As in the past, the new article 24 stipulates that the country's religious authorities – not only Catholics – shall continue petitioning the competent authorities for the necessary authorizations to carry out processions, pilgrimages or other such outdoor activities. They also may not make free use of the large-scale news media nor deliver religion classes in the schools, even if they are private and openly denominational.
Despite the insufficiency of the measure, the Mexican Episcopal Conference (CEM) celebrated – in moderation - the introduction of the reform, that is has not yet been made law because it must first be endorsed by the Republic’s Senate and afterward by, at least, half minus one of the Parliaments of the 32 states that make up the Mexican Republic.
“Our country, through its legislators, has taken a very important step in the recognition and respect of an innate fundamental right of each person, and for that reason, it is a step forward in democratic life, respecting the plurality and the thinking of everyone, collectively and individually,” Víctor René Rodríguez Gómez, Auxiliary Bishop of Texcoco and Secretary General of the CEM, stated in a communiqué.
Paradoxically those who showed disagreement were the liberal political groups, even those within the same party to which the initiative's author belongs. For example, the Senator of the PRI, María de los Ángeles Moreno, warned that changing article 24 of the Constitution would be going as far as making a threat against the secular State that, in Mexico, is an almost untouchable concept.
But what is certain is that the project of Deputy López Pescador did not intend for any type of privilege or discrimination but only the recognition of a fundamental right of all citizens: to practice or not practice religion. Atheists included.

He also did not imply a change to article 3 of the Constitution that dedicates secular and diverse state education to any religious doctrine. Indeed, ensuring that parents can make choices for their children's education on the basis of their convictions, did not necessarily require that this take place in the classrooms of public institutions.
He certainly did not intend to condition the establishment of a legal system for raising conscientious objections. Neither did he entertain the possibility of ministers of religion gaining access to popularly elected positions. In other words, all of the postulates of Mexican secularism were unharmed.
Nonetheless, Senator Moreno assured that the reform would allow, among other things, “(religious leaders) to have the right to radio and television concessions or to have the right to provide academic instruction or to have the right to a passive vote, that is to say, that the priests can be elected.”
And he assured that the majority of the members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party in the Mexican Senate are opposed to changing the Constitution and as a result are already preparing an initiative to oppose that which was approved by MPs. The battle for religious freedom in the Mexican Parliament has just begun and there are still several chapters yet to be written.