Minister of Education Esteban Bullrich has come under fire after his comments yesterday regarding religious education in public schools. Bullrich ever so slightly put his foot in it, saying that the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Gospel “should be learned” in schools. This has caused a great deal of controversy around an already tricky subject in Argentina.

Bullrich’s remarks were made in conversation with a priest at the opening of a new extension of Docentes Correntinos School in Esquina, 320 kilometers south of Corrientes City. The priest, Juan Carlos Mendoza, asked Bullrich for Catholic teaching “to come back to classrooms”; the Education Minister replied that he was “convinced that the teachings of the Gospel should be learned, the example of Jesus should be learned, but also the example of Mohammed, the teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism, other religions as well, in order to grow together recognizing one another”.

These comments have been strongly criticized by several major organisations in Argentina. Official sources from the Ministry of Education have fervently denied any intention to promote the teaching of religion in schools. Ctera (Confederation of Education Workers Argentina) and FUA (University Federation Argentina) have also come out against the sentiment that religious education belongs in the classroom.

The current situation surrounding religious education in public schools in Argentina is a sticky one. From 1884 to 2015, Law 1420, which set out the principles for public education, had expressly prohibited religious education within school hours. However, in 2015 this law was repealed on the basis that it had been replaced by the modern Education Law 26.206 (2006) and by provincial laws. However, this leaves a legal vacuum regarding religious education, since the modern law does not make reference to it.

In terms of actual teaching practice, there is a great deal of variation from province to province. In Buenos Aires City, Entre Ríos, Neuquén, Mendoza and Tierra del Fuego, provincial laws stipulate that education must be completely secular. The provinces of Buenos Aires, Corrientes, Formosa, Jujuy, Misiones, Santa Fe and Santiago del Estero have vaguer laws, promoting religious liberty and forbidding religious symbols and acts inside schools. In Catamarca, Chubut, San Juan and La Pampa, religious education is allowed in schools outside of teaching hours. But in Salta and Tucumán, religion is allowed to be taught as a subject like any other.

Religious education in Salta is particularly controversial, with catechisms being explicitly taught in schools. Last March, the Public Prosecution declared Salta’s religious education unconstitutional, saying that it “seriously impinges on the fundamental constitutional rights of religious and non-religious minorities.” Nevertheless, this appears to have had little effect and the controversy persists.

Fernando Locaza, the coordinator of CAEL (Argentine Coalition for a Secular State), said that the teaching of religion in public schools would constitute a violation of rights. He criticized any connection between Church and State, pointing to the strong ties between them under the dictatorship and the laws made in that period which he said continue to give power to the Church to this day. According to Locaza: “In general, democracies tend towards separation of Church and State.”