Constitutional reform seen as threat to secular state
[Translation of an article from La Jornada of Mexico City for March 29. See original here.]
by Andrea Becerril and Víctor Ballinas
In a closed chamber yesterday, with empty galleries so no protesters could slip in, the PRI-PAN [Partido Revolucionario Institucional, Partido Acción Nacional] majority of the Senate had to work hard to do it but finally attained the required vote and approved reforms to Article 24 of the constitution.
The change consists of adding to the concept of freedom of religion, already addressed in that provision of the document, the “freedom of conscience and ethical convictions.”
On the dais, senators from the PRD [Partido de la Revolución Democrática], the PT [Partido del Trabajo] and the Movimiento Ciudadano, as well as María de los Ángeles Moreno of the PRI, explained that this amounts to a step toward the dismantling of the secular state and is an attempt by the Catholic hierarchy to gain “new privileges and powers.”
PAN Senators acknowledged in the full senate that on the basis of this reform changes that would allow the teaching of religion in public schools and the ownership of mass communications media by the church may be considered.
Pablo Gómez of the PRD accused PRI presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto of making a pact on the reform with the high clergy and Moreno said that the change is not a result of a social demand but rather of “the will of overnight zealots or of the upper echelons of power who wish to please some forces with whom they think it is useful to reach agreements, without considering the serious consequences.”
A majority in the Senate had previously approved reform of Article 40 of the constitution to reaffirm the secular nature of the Mexican state, a draft bill that was frozen for two years when PAN opposed its passage. “It is now a kind of swap for Article 24,” charges Pablo Gómez, who, together with his colleague Leonel Godoy and Moreno of the PRI protested because of the decision not to allow representatives of groups like the Foro Cívico México Laico access to the gallery of guests in the hall.
The chamber and the two galleries were closed except to accredited photographers and camera operators. Four opponents of the reform managed to slip into the press area, but they were removed at the first shout of “No to the reform!”
Outside the chamber, dozens of demonstrators with similar demands were at Reforma and Insurgentes Avenues during the four hours that the debate lasted.
Twelve speakers, eight of them opposed, participated. PRD members Gómez, Godoy, Rubén Velásquez and Máximo García Zalvidea, Movimiento Ciudadano members Eugenia Govea and Dante Delgado and PRI member Moreno argued that there are risks to approving a poorly drafted text which does not define or detail the reach or the consequences of “the new freedoms” set out in the human rights chapter of the highest law of the land.
Pablo Gómez declared before the plenary that “it is a matter of an unnecessary modification” because freedom of religion has been established in the constitution since 1857. He warned that no one explained the desire for this change, which could result in conscientious objections.
Godoy in turn warned that there is an effort to “open a breach” in the constitution to introduce other themes, among them religious education. He referred to the current wording of Article 24, which states, “Every man is free to profess the religious beliefs that most suit him and to perform the corresponding ceremonies, devotions and rituals, as long as they do not constitute a crime or omission prohibited by law.”
The new text, on the other hand, establishes, “Every person has the right to freedom of ethical convictions, of conscience and of religion, and to have or to adopt, as is the case, that which suits them. This freedom includes the right to participate, individually or collectively, in public and in private, in corresponding ceremonies, devotions or rituals, as long as they do not constitute a crime or an omission prohibited by law.
Godoy stressed that it neither improves the wording of Article 24 nor broadens freedoms for Mexicans. It establishes the freedom of ethical and conscientious convictions, copying the wording of international treaties without specifying the extent, which leaves them up to free interpretation by the citizen and that constitutes a risk for the Mexican judicial system.
When he presented the report, the chair of the Committee on Constitutional Matters, Melquiades Morales of the PRI, held that the change does not have the effect or the purpose of trampling principals upholding the secular state. He stressed that a paragraph had been removed from the draft in which representatives had declared that “in light of this change in Article 24, revision of the third, fifth, 27th and 130th articles of the constitution will also be required.”
Nevertheless, shortly afterward PAN Senator Judith Díaz explained that freedom of conscience is related to freedom of upbringing and of religious education. “We have to begin to define who the right of education belongs to, whether to the parents, to the church or who.”
She added that we also have to determine the access of the churches, “as religious associations, to the mass communications media.”
Her colleague, Santiago Creel, in turn argued that it is time to leave behind mockeries like those he experienced, he said, when he was a student in a catholic school and had to hide religious books when inspectors from the Ministry of Public Education came by.
“A blind and deaf majority,” as Eugenia Govea of the Movimiento Ciudadano put it, approved the reform.
Concerning Article 40, after the text approved yesterday it still reads, “It is the will of the Mexican people to form themselves as a representative, democratic, secular and federal republic.”
Both drafts were sent to the state legislatures to continue the process of the Permanent Constitutional Assembly.