Costa Rica’s Promised Secularism Morphs into Religious Welfare


Español“I want a secular state … but not a state without God,” Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís stated in April. The newly elected president promised to put an end to Costa Rica’s sanctioning of Catholicism, but his support for pending Bill 19.099, the Law for Liberty of Religion and Worship, has left many Ticos confused. Far from ushering in secularism, it would mean multiple state-sponsored religions.

The Catholic Church would stop being the only one to benefit from the taxpayer money, and other religions would enjoy a slice of the pie. Once the 70-article bill reached the legislative floor, however, the reaction was immediate.

The most recent demonstration took place yesterday, when around 80 Ticos gathered outside the president’s house in protest. Organizations such as the Movement for a Secular State in Costa Rica and the Invisibles led the demonstration outside Solís’s residence.

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Protest Costa Rica
Protesters gather outside the president’s residence. (Diario Extra)

“We believe that the right thing to do is to go straight to the door of Mr. Solís’s house, and in a respectful manner, express to him our displeasure and deliver to him a document that summarizes the causes for our protest,” Vladimir Sagot, a spokesperson for the Costa Rican NGO, the Invisibles stated.

Both organizations shared a document that criticizes the current fiscal privileges and state donations made to the Catholic Church — along with the possible expansion of these entitlements to other religious groups.

This bill “moves us away from ever reaching and building a secular state, like any other modern state in the world. On the contrary, it puts our support behind the agendas of particular creeds, by extending fiscal exceptions, and giving preferential treatment — which today are solely for the ‘state official religion’ — to other religious groups,” the statement says.

Melvin Jimenez Costa Rica
Melvin Jiménez, minister of presidency and bishop of the Lutheran Church. (Flickr)

The man behind this bill is Melvin Jiménez, minister of the presidency. Jiménez, who was appointed by Solís in April, is also a Lutheran bishop.

“There is a conflict of interest,” says Otto Guevara, former presidential candidate from the Libertarian Party: “The Ministry of Presidency is in a delicate situation… Its position is weak when putting forward a bill like this one.”

Nevertheless, Jiménez insists that his decision to include his own congregation as one of the state-selected beneficiaries has nothing to do with his religious post: “My signature to call for special sessions responds to my fulfillment as a minister of the presidency, and not to any particular interest outside this post.”

Secularism, But With God

Representative Fabricio Alvarado, one of the prime sponsors of this bill, claims “what has been proposed in the past as a secular state is an atheist state, where God is left out, where all different religions can’t have access to state public goods. We can’t conceive it that way.”

At present, Costa Rica is the only officially Catholic state left in Latin America. The state has a constitutional obligation to provide a series of privileges and exemptions to the Catholic Church. Therefore, every year the executive branch transfers a chunk of its budget to church accounts. Aside from this direct contribution, there other benefits, such as subsidies to Catholic schools, assistance from the Ministry of Culture for the restoration of temples, property tax exemptions, and financial support for social welfare projects.

To broaden this welfare, the bill includes a new bureaucratic structure that will address religious affairs and create a church registry. The central government will then determine which religious groups will receive the state benefits that the Catholic Church already receives, and which won’t.

To include other religions, the National Assembly will have to reform Article 75 of the Constitution. It declares the Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion as the only official one of the state. According to Representative Gonzalo Ramírez, the aim of this bill is to establish religious equality in Costa Rica, to guarantee rights to all churches.

Aside from financial concessions, the bill will also ease the granting of safety permits for the necessary, high-occupancy buildings.

Christian Representative Gonzalo Ramírez, from Costa Rican Renovation Party, has defended the bill and argued its intention is not to obtain any economic benefit from the state. Rather, he believes it guarantees equal rights and a level playing field for Evangelical churches, which don’t exist at this time. For example, with the passing of bill 19.099, churches won’t have to close due to orders of the Ministry of Health: “We want real equality with this bill, and for the Evangelical minority to stop being discriminated against.”

According to Jaime Ordoñez, director of the Central American Institute of Governability, this bill is a “huge step backwards” for the nation.

Ordoñez notes that this will only expand economic cronyism to different churches — Lutheran, Evangelical, Christian, Protestant, or Orthodox — at the expense of taxpayers.

“This means that on top of the Catholic Church, we will now finance through our taxes all other churches,” Ordoñez asserts.

These religious groups will be approved by an ad-hoc state agency, which, according to Ordoñez, will be politically controlled.

“We are not only transforming into a state with many sponsored religions, we are creating a new government structure that will determine which religions are ‘approved’ and apt to receive the new benefits, financed with our taxes… It’s hard to imagine something this regressive and dreadful.”

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