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Secularism in Colombia, a Goal Not Yet Achieved

If I say, ‘Holy Week’, what do you think of? Probably the scenes on Spain’s streets with its processions, the services offered by the Pope or biblical movies like The Passion of Christ. Well, Latin America is no stranger to these expressions of Catholic faith due to our colonial heritage. In Colombia it is typical to attend massive services and processions through our city’s streets, but the pandemic shifted all that. Now we see it from the comfort of our home, but other than the virtual aspect of this Holy Week what stood out the most was the presence of the Colombia’s Presidential Guard Battalion in the official ceremonies officiated by Bogota’s archdiocese, kneeling to the symbol of Christ being taken to prison and the national anthem playing in the background.


This appearance poses the question: if Colombia is a secular state, per its constitution, why is there still so much catholic presence in its symbols and institutions? How does it affect freedom of cult, a right given by the constitution? Should it change for the future?


Now, the Presidential Guard Battalion (also known as 37th Infantry Presidential Guard Battalion) was technically created in 1927 by the then President Miguel Abadía Méndez under the name of Honor Guard of the President of the Republic and in 1928 through the decree 367 it was given its final name. As for its functions, it is supposed to “support the requirements of the Secretary of Security of the Presidency, in the provision of services to the Head of State and his family, requested through the Military House. In addition, it supports the mission of the 13th Brigade with area military registration and control operations and comprehensive action in the assigned jurisdiction, under the framework of the promotion of human rights and international humanitarian law.” (Presidency Archive, 2008) According to Blu Radio, a national radio station, the Presidential Guard was present on Holy Thursday to avoid agglomerations in Bolivar’s Square and in front of Colombia’s Prime Cathedral with the third peak of the pandemic upon us. This is a very justified call to these forces, but that doesn’t explain their presence inside the building and active participation in the processions and religious acts.


The reason why this question arises lies in the fact that Colombia was declared a secular state through the constitutional sentence C-350 in 1994, because there was a proposal to consecrate the country officially to the Sacred Heart of Jesus which would have gone against article 19 of the 1991 constitution which declares freedom of cult as a fundamental right. The country’s relation to Catholic faith dates back to the Spanish invasion centuries ago, they not only imposed their language, but also their religion and back then things such as church-state separation were unthinkable. Thus, Catholic religion was the principal one in every constitution passed in the nation until 1991 when this became unjustifiable, and for Colombia Legal Corporation, a law firm, it can be understood from this document that “no president, mayor, governor, or any public authority can assume that one religion should be above another”.


But the fact that a branch of the military forces plays such an an active role in catholic services is not the only event that we’ve seen that goes against the 1994 ruling. In 2017 the ex-mayor of Yopal, Casanare passed a decree through which the keys of the city were to be given symbolically to Jesus Christ, an act that caused all sorts of reactions. Inspired by this event, the mayor of a town in Caldas decided to deliver the city to God by decree that same year and with a public event, the mayor said in an interview with El Tiempo “I consider that every ruler, chosen by the will of God, has the duty to ensure in the first place for the welfare of his governed, regardless of what religion they have, and to strive for the salvation of his people in search of God”.


These two examples show just how frail this separation of institutions can be and the way in which some Colombians choose to ignore the cult diversity that was stated through our constitution. In statistical terms and according to a 2018 study made by Latinobarómetro, 75.2% identified as Catholics, 9.9% as unreligious, 12% identified with Protestantism, 1.3% with other religions, while 0.7% chose not to answer. These numbers give a clear predominance to Catholicism, but it is clear that other religions and beliefs, such as native and indigenous, or having no religion at all should also be taken into account and respected in the public sphere.


Colombia’s secularism is more often than not ignored, but there are cases in which we’ve seen some advance towards total respect of it. In February 2020 when a police officer refused to sing the institutions’ anthem and recite the code of ethics due to him being an atheist, he was sanctioned and in consequence sought justice in court. Colombia’s police forces’ anthem, code of ethics and motto make clear allusions to God, which the officer’s superiors demanded to be respected while inside the institution, in the end the court ruled in favor of the policeman respecting the Constitution’s 19th article.


But this is just one case where secularism was respected. In June last year Iván Duque, president of the Latin American nation, tweeted through his official account a commemoration of the 101 years that the Vírgen de Chiquinquirá has been considered as patroness of Colombia. This was not taken kindly in social media and led to a tutelage where it a jury instructed the president to delete the tweet and recommended being careful in further expressions of faith so not to violate other fundamental rights, nevertheless the president decided to challenge this decision arguing that it was sent from his personal account. In this case justice acted correctly defending the Constitution, but it remains clear the church-state separation still has ways to go in the Latin American country.


With this I’m not trying to say or encourage to stop being a believer, it is an invitation to respect what our Constitution, the most important document in Colombia and which dictates our general behavior, asks us to do. Furthermore, it is important to highlight that secularism is relatively new in our state, our colonial past still looms over us and there isn’t much visibility towards other religions, nor is there enough data and that should tell us something. If we aim towards multiculturalism, it should also include this aspect of life and not just in common day to day, but also in the power sphere in order to keep on respecting a fundamental right.


Written by Andrea Jaramillo Caro


Andrea Jaramillo Caro is a columnist at DecipherGrey