By Víctor Herrero
The specter of atheism is haunting this most Christian of regions, Latin America. From Mexico to Argentina, dozens of voices and groups of freethinkers, atheists and agnostics are demanding to be heard and calling for more secular structures in their countries.
Most don’t seek to convert the religious but instead to ensure that their own rights are respected in countries where separation of church and state isn’t often a flimsy legal concept.
These activists want “respect for diversity,” says Argentine engineer Fernando Esteban Lozada, Latin America spokesman for the International Association of Free Thought.
Four years ago, Lozada, who has organized four annual national atheism congresses in Argentina, took legal action against the Jesuit-run El Salvador University, or USAL, in Buenos Aires, for discrimination “based on religion.” USAL’s charter calls for a “struggle against atheism.” It was drafted in 1974 by the country’s then-ranking Jesuit Jorge Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis.
Argentina’s National Institute Against Discrimination (INADI), which is part of the Justice Ministry, ruled in Lozada’s favor, though USAL has yet to eliminate the contested principle. Discrimination in education, traditionally a bastion of Latin America’s Catholic Church, is a chief concern for atheists and agnostics. In Chile, almost half of Catholic schools require baptism certificates of prospective students and parents’ church wedding certificates for admission — and these are not private schools, but institutions receiving state subsidies.
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