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Secular drive challenges Spain's Catholic identity

Socialists want to bolster Spain's church-state barrier.

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Since its transition to democracy more than 25 years ago, Spain's wall between church and state has been a bit porous. Despite ratifying a constitution in 1979 that prohibited a state religion, the country's dominant Roman Catholic church has continued to enjoy preferential treatment from the government.

But now, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's Socialist government is working to shore up the barrier between church and state.

Last week, his administration announced plans for a "road map" that would treat all religions equally under the law, remove religious symbols from public spaces, and end compulsory religious instruction in public schools.

Most controversially, it would divest the Catholic Church of the economic and social privileges it has enjoyed for centuries. Some say the Socialists are trying to strip Spain of its special heritage. Others see evidence of a natural evolution towards full democracy in a secular state.

In a country whose constitution guarantees freedom of religious expression and forbids official sponsorship of any particular faith, such a change might seem unremarkable.

But Spain's constitutional history is unusual, fraught with compromises that made democracy here take a form different from the one promoted by Thomas Jefferson.

Instead of divorcing church and state, the authors of the Spanish constitution opted for a handshake between the two institutions. After all, the last - and only other - attempt to radically alter church-state relations was a leading cause of the country's 1936 civil war.

Less than a week after the constitution was put into effect in 1979, for example, the Spanish state signed a set of agreements with the Holy See that in effect continued the Catholic Church's privileged legal and economic status.

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