MEXICO CITY – Angered by an official who hung a crucifix in his office and invited employees to a Mass in a government building, Mexico's largest leftist party filed a complaint Thursday and announced a push to ban religious images from government offices.
The moves threaten to re-ignite debate on the separation of church and state in a country where small Roman Catholic shrines have long been tolerated in public markets, as well as police and fire stations – but tensions remain from a bloody uprising by Roman Catholic rebels in the 1920s.
The debate has sharpened since President Vicente Fox, an outspoken Catholic, took office in December. Members of Mr. Fox's conservative National Action Party were also swept into office in several Mexico City boroughs.
One of those borough presidents, Jose Espina, hung the crucifix on the wall of his private office, calling it "a strictly personal affair."
But the leftist Democratic Revolution Party said the crucifix – and a letter sent out on official stationery inviting government employees to a Mother's Day Mass at borough offices – violated articles of Mexico's Constitution that mandate a separation of church and state.
"It's not that we're against him professing his religious convictions," said Porfirio Martinez, a local Democratic Revolution Party leader.
"It's just that the law prohibits public servants from attending religious events in their official status," Mr. Martinez said, "and even more strictly prohibits using public funds or buildings to promote one religion or another."
Democratic Revolution legislators filed the complaint against Mr. Espina with the Mexico City comptroller's office, alleging that he made improper use of city funds and buildings.
Mr. Espina countered that "there is no law prohibiting these actions."
Officials agree that there is no ban on crucifixes, but the Democratic Revolution lawmakers said they will propose that Congress pass a law against them in government buildings.
The constitution defines the Mexican government as "nonreligious" and says officials "cannot establish any kind of preference or privilege for or against any particular religious group."
Those precepts are much less restrictive than laws enacted between the 1850s and 1917 that stripped the church of much of the property and many of the rights it enjoyed. During colonial times, church and state were tightly linked.
Several anti-Catholic measures, such as bans on public Masses or religious garb, led to a virtual halt to church services and the outbreak of the 1926-29 "Cristero War" in which tens of thousands died.
Unlike previous presidents who did not attend church in public and maintained a strict stance against mixing religion and government, Mr. Fox waved a religious banner during his campaign and regularly attends Mass.