The Miami Herald
Jun. 04, 2003

Mexican vote stirs dispute

Church seeks political rights

  Knight Ridder News Service

  MEXICO CITY - As key midterm congressional elections near in Mexico, a feud is brewing between the government and the Roman Catholic Church over whether priests have the right to comment on political issues or sermonize in favor of a party or candidate.

  The Bishop's Conference in Mexico on Sunday asked the government to change Article 130 of the Mexican Constitution, which prohibits the church from getting involved in politics.

  The dispute began when the new, liberal political party called México Posible filed a formal complaint with the Justice Department after the bishop of Querétaro state made comments in Sunday Mass early in May against abortion, the use of condoms and gay marriages.

  The bishops of Tlaxcala, Cuernavaca and Acapulco then joined Querétaro Bishop Mario de Gasperin. The incident has snowballed into a dispute about freedom of

  ''We're either all free, or all are not,'' Cardinal Norberto Rivera said Sunday in Mexico City.

  Legalization of abortion is one of the main platforms of México Posible, which was created in January 2002, mostly by feminists and social organizations that claim 93,000 members. Party officials said the bishops' comments violated the Constitution and were a direct attack on their party.

  ''We're not anti-clerical or against freedom of expression,'' said Jorge Javier Romero, a political scientist and media director for México Posible who filed charges with the prosecutors office in charge of electoral crimes. ``The church is in direct violation of the law when they made public their views.''

  Rivera denied Sunday that the bishops ''referred to any party or person in particular.'' He said priests who told parishioners not to vote for candidates who supported abortion or same-sex marriages didn't violate the law because they didn't specify parties or endorse any candidates.

  Gasperin and the other bishops also published a guide, A Catholic Votes Like This: Pastoral Instructions About the Elections.

  The Bishop's Conference sent a letter Sunday to President Vicente Fox, the Supreme Court and Congress saying the law must be changed because the church has been victimized and slandered for 150 years. The letter added that Article 130 of the Constitution contradicts the first article, which guarantees freedom of speech.

  Mexico has a long history of anti-clerical public policy, largely a reaction to the power of the church, which dominated the country's political and economic life until the 1800s.

  President Benito Juárez, elected in 1858, officially separated church and state and confiscated church property to limit the clergy's enormous control. Stricter bans were imposed when the Institutional Revolutionary Party was created in 1929 after Catholics led an armed uprising against the anti-clerical laws, which banned priests from any role in political life and prohibited them from appearing in public in religious garb.

  President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who governed from 1988 until 1994, led reforms that sought to normalize relations with the church. He gave priests the right to wear cassocks in public again and reestablished diplomatic relations with the Vatican, broken under Juárez.

  The PRI and other political parties stay away from public religious displays or comments. It wasn't until the devout Fox, a candidate of the conservative, anti-abortion National Action Party, was elected president in July 2000, breaking the 71-year-old PRI rule, that a Mexican leader displayed his faith.

  He caused an uproar when he campaigned with a banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and knelt and prayed before an image of the Virgin before he was sworn into office.