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Religious Freedom in the Classroom Disputed in Chile

Friday, August 24, 2001 | Tag Cloud Tags: ,

by Hugo Hormazabal

SANTIAGO, Chile (Compass) -- The issue of religious discrimination is in the public spotlight in Chile, due to the case of San Pedro de la Paz, a town some 300 miles south of Santiago. There a Baptist lawyer named Raul Romero has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Education and Gospel Task Force for Chile because of evident acts of religious discrimination against evangelical students in the community schools.

New legislation known as Law 19.638, promulgated in May 2000, granted Protestants and other religious bodies equality with Roman Catholics. But Protestants say that religious education in public schools, as presently practiced, is a conspicuous case of discrimination. Law 19.638 gives them the legal tools to challenge such inequalities for the first time in history.

"At the outset, I want to clarify that this problem is not present only in San Pedro de la Paz," Romero stated. "It is something that affects the whole country. In this community, several persons discovered that the law was not being followed and reported it to the proper authorities. That's how the process began."

The attorney refers to legal norms requiring that religion classes taught in Chile's public schools respect the beliefs of students and their parents. Religious education is regulated by Supreme Decree Number 924, which has been in force since 1983. It obligates all state educational establishments to provide religious education. Article 4 of the regulation reads: "The teaching of any religious creed may be imparted, provided it does not violate sound humanism, morals, good habits and public order."

The measure also stipulates: "Educational establishments of the state and municipalities, as well as private, non-confessional schools, must offer students various options to study different religious creeds, providing that they have competent people to teach the subjects and curriculum approved by the Ministry of Public Education."

Presently, Catholic religious education is taught in most public schools due to the fact that principals hire only teachers with Roman Catholic training. However, Article 12 of the regulations states: "Distinctive religious confessions that own organisms or departments of higher education may provide training and/or re-training for professors who teach religious subjects, or may obtain such license from commensurate organisms and institutions of higher education."

The class action suit against the educational authorities was initiated because there are great numbers of evangelical students, particularly in San Pedro de la Paz.

"According to surveys conducted by school administrators themselves, between 40 and 50 percent of students are evangelicals," Romero said. "Yet, they hire professors of only one faith -- Catholic. There is not one Protestant teacher."

He added, "About one hundred evangelical teachers who have the credentials and training necessary to teach these classes live in the area. During the past year, they have applied for jobs, but as yet the administrators have not hired them.

"Sometimes parents have gone to the schools to inquire about this situation and teachers treat them very badly, as if they were ignorant. Some have then gone to administrators, but they simply refuse to see them."

More serious than the failure to hire teachers for evangelical religion classes is the problem that arises when Protestant students are made to take classes in Catholicism. (See related article, "A Widow Pleads for Her Children's Right to Choose.")

"Evangelical Christians are asking for religion classes. In fact, even Catholic Christians have told me they want classes on evangelical faith offered, because they consider them to have better content," Romero said.

The Spanish originally colonized Chile and imparted a rigid brand of Catholicism. Religious discrimination has existed since the republic was born nearly 200 years ago. Evangelism initiated by Protestant churches at the beginning of the 20th century has clearly borne fruit. Today, nearly 20 percent of the population are evangelical Christians.

"If the courts rule in favor of evangelicals, it will be a first for the country," Romero said. "To date, Chile has not seen judicial action in defense of freedom of conscience. Protestants have never sought that recourse. There are no judicial precedents that apply, but that does not really matter because our judicial system is not based on precedent."

The lawyer told Compass that he is optimistic about the case due to the sound arguments presented by the defense. If the courts correctly interpret the law, the Education and Gospel Task Force should prevail in the suit, Romero said.

"We believe this judicial process will have an important impact on educational authorities, as well as upon the evangelical community, so that in the future the rights of all citizens will be respected and arbitrary and unjust discrimination will not be allowed," Romero said.
Copyright © 2001 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.

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