Latin America & Caribbean

Mexico's Catholic Church fans flames of gay rights row

Gay rights campaigners protest outside Guadalajara cathedral
Image caption Protesters have picketed the cathedral after the cardinal's comments

Politics, religion and the law can be a potent mixture, but throw in the issue of gay rights and the mixture can become explosive.

That is what has happened in Mexico where a row between Catholic Church leaders and Mexico City's mayor over gay rights legislation has also embroiled the Supreme Court.

"Would any of you want to be adopted by a couple of lesbians or queers," said Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iniguez, the Archbishop of Guadalajara, at a recent news conference.

He was reacting to a ruling by the Supreme Court that legislation passed in Mexico City granting equal rights to same-sex couples, including the right to adopt, was constitutional.

Cardinal Sandoval Iniguez's next comments then proceded to fan the flames of the dispute further.

He alleged that Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard had bribed the Supreme Court judges to hand down a ruling that supported gay rights.


Image caption The Catholic Church wants to breach the division between church and state

Mr Ebrard responded by strenuously denying the allegations and sued Cardinal Sandoval Iniguez for defamation.

A Church spokesman urged Mexican voters to punish the mayor's left-wing PRD party at the next election.

The Supreme Court judges issued a unanimous and unprecedented condemnation of the Archbishop's allegations.

The dispute, which has since taken further twists and turns and drawn in other players, has been closely followed by the Mexican media.

At its heart is the longstanding tension in Mexico between the Roman Catholic Church and the secular state.

The Church's powers, which reached back to colonial times, were curtailed in the mid-19th Century, restrictions that were maintained by a constitution implemented as a result of the 1910 Mexican Revolution.

Secular state

One specific article in the constitution, article 130, prohibited members of the Church from participating in any political activities, interfering in any government matters, or campaigning for or against any candidate.

"That article meant not only the separation of Church and state but the subordination of the Church to the state," says Francisco Ibarra Palafox, constitutional expert from Mexico's National Autonomous University (UNAM).

It meant, in effect, that Mexico became one of the most secular states in Latin America.

In 1992, article 130 was modified but the core idea remained that the Church should refrain from political involvement.

But now, amid the gay rights debate, the Church has seemed ready to breach that restriction.

'Media war'

"If we see that something is unfair or contrary to national law, even if the constitution says we can't, we think we have to speak out," Father Hugo Valdemar, spokesperson for the Mexico City Archdiocese told the BBC.

Image caption The church hasn't been able to mobilise support for its side of the gay rights debate, observers say

Father Valdemar himself is included in the lawsuit launched by Mr Ebrard.

"No-one is above the law, be it a Cardinal, Archbishop or whatever," Mr Ebrard said.

Father Valdemar appears unwilling to back down.

"This is a media war which is being pushed by a government that has deeply damaged the city," he told the BBC.

He argues article 130 should be reformed yet again, saying that it renders Church leaders "second class citizens" whose freedom of expression is curtailed.

Widening gulf

However some observers say the gay rights row shows how out of step the Church is with significant parts of Mexican society.

"This comes out of the desperation of the Catholic Church hierarchy, who haven't been able to mobilise the population against these reforms," says Roberto Blancarte, a professor of church-state relations at the Colegio de Mexico.

An estimated 90% of Mexicans consider themselves Catholic, but, according to Professor Blancarte, "polls show that, in terms of sexual and reproductive rights, what the hierarchy says is not what Catholics think".

For Professor Blancarte, the row reflects the widening gulf between the Church hierarchy and its flock.

"This is not a crisis of the relationship between the Church and state but a crisis of the Church itself," says Professor Blancarte.

With lawsuits flying around, the dispute is unlikely to disappear.

Father Valdemar says that members of the Church, including himself and Cardinal Sandoval Iniguez, are ready to stand in court to defend their statements.

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