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Cabinet appointment of Lutheran bishop is unconstitutional, says Government Attorney’s Office

July 28, 2014

The Government Attorney’s Office on Thursday advised Costa Rica’s Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, or Sala IV, that it believes the appointment of Lutheran bishop Melvin Jiménez Marín as presidency minister violates a constitutional prohibition on active religious authorities serving on the presidential Cabinet.

Government Attorney Ana Lorena Brenes stated that President Luis Guillermo Solís’ appointment of Jiménez violates articles 75 and 142 of the Constitution.

The Sala IV had asked the Attorney’s Office to issue an opinion following a constitutional complaint filed in May by Álvaro Orozco Carballo, a lawyer and a Catholic activist.

Paragraph 3 of constitutional Article 142 states that all government ministers must be “members of the secular state” (“ser del estado seglar,” in Spanish), which the complaint interprets to mean that government ministers cannot be active members of religious organizations.

Article 75 of the Constitution says that Roman Catholicism is Costa Rica’s official religion, and the State acknowleges the existence of other religions and the freedom to exercise them in the country.

Solís and Jiménez responded to the complaint in May by saying the constitutional rule only prevents Catholic clergy from serving on the Cabinet, an argument based on past rulings of the Supreme Elections Tribunal, Solís said at the time. Jiménez said he asked for a sabbatical from his episcopal duties at Costa Rica’s Lutheran Church in order to serve in Solís’ administration.

Those statements, argued the Government Attorney’s Office, constitute religious discrimination.

“We think [Jiménez’s appointment] may violate the right to equality by interpreting Article 142 to only apply to Catholic priests. This would be an odious discrimination against Catholic clergy,” Assistant Attorney General Alonso Arnesto said Thursday.

The Attorney’s analysis is not binding on the Sala IV, whose justices have total independence to rule on Orozco’s claim.

Jiménez, 58, resumed his duties this week after a sick leave of seven days. He currently is coordinating the drafting of a report that Solís will present on the first 100 days of his administration.

Solís received the latest news in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, where he is visiting to mark the 190th anniversary of the annexation of the Partido de Nicoya on Friday.

“We’re not overwhelmed [by the opinion],” Solís responded on Thursday evening. “Firstly, we believe there is a way out, regardless of whether Sala IV justices decide to accept the Government Attorney’s analysis. Secondly, we are confident that we have presented a solid case. However, I’m not going to speculate, we will wait for the ruling.”

Jiménez was Solís’ campaign manager and was appointed as presidency minister on May 8. The post is strategic within Solís’ Cabinet, as Jiménez is the coordinator of all other ministers. He also is is the government’s official spokesman and a liaison with the Legislative Assembly.

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