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How religion poisons Brazilian politics

Originally published on the Secular Humanist League of Brazil's blog here.

In Brazil we’ve witnessed a growth in the number of national representatives elected in 2010 who only work to try and limit individual rights of women, gays and other minorities hated by biblical text. They are known as the “evangelical bench“. I would rather call them “theocratic bench”, since I know not all evangelical Christians think their beliefs should be forced down everyone’s throats, let alone by the power of a purportedly secular government.

Since we’ve got constitutional separation of church and state, we should at least hope their actions were halted. But often government is very dubious. In 2011, Marco Feliciano, a representative who is also a preacher, tried to pass a bill to make religious teaching mandatory for students in public schools. Fortunately, his bill was rejected at once.

On the other hand, public schools have been forced to offer religious teaching for decades, with no orientation whatsoever of what kind of teaching this would be, rendering a not so unexpected result of public tuition hijacked by religious proselytising, as has been proved by human rights scholar Debora Diniz. The law says students can choose not to attend religious teaching, but the truth is that most of them are not even informed of this right.

Another example of religious intrusion is that last July the governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro has approved a law that forces public libraries to have bibles in their collections. No such thing has been done in relation to the Quran or the Baghavad Gita, of course.

This year, as president Dilma Rousseff has named a pro-choice secretary for women’s rights, the evangelical group of representatives at once started making derogatory comments against “the abortionist” Eleanora Menicucci and threatened to stop all activity of the Chamber of Representatives every thursday if she was not to be fired.

(Famously, Brazilian representatives earn way too much money and often only work from tuesday to thursday of their own accord. You may imagine how much we love them for that.)

Religious lobby is also trying to pass a bill to allow religion to propose whether a law is constitutional or not (an amendment proposed by the fundamentalist representative João Campos), only to deny all gay rights achievements so far in Brazil, which are very few and do not include gay marriage. We are working to stop them with petitions and lobbying, but secularism is still a movement lacking maturity in our country.

The theocratic bench and religious lobby succeed in avoiding women’s choice and gay rights to enter the realm of legal and political debate: the Health Ministry, for instance, still does not allow abortion of anencephalic foetuses and recently has censored a Carnival video ad of its own making about AIDS prevention among gays, saying it would only be distributed in gay ghettos. We’ve caught the Health Ministry lying to the press saying it did not intend to put the video ad on TV**, when this was explicity the intention of documents about the AIDS prevention campaign during Carnival.

Under protest for having lied about the censorship of its video featuring a gay couple barely touching each other, the Health Ministry released today a replacement for the video, a crude last-minute stub with half-baked common sense.

We ask ourselves how long we’ll have to wait until the bulk of Brazilian politicians understand their personal beliefs are not welcome into state policy***, and how many minorities will be neglected until they realise welfare is a priority for a secular state.

Eli Vieira is the president of the Secular Humanist League of Brazil.

* *TV in Brazil is a public concession which is all too often occupied by private companies happy enough to pander to religious demands. One of the largest TV networks in the country, Record, is owned by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, famous for its “prosperity theology”: God gives material return according to the sum of money given to the church as tithe. The founder of this church is being investigated for various crimes featuring money laundering.

***Of course religion is not the lone cause of homophobia and misogyny in Brazil. But it still is the chief medium allowing their growth.