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Church's Influence Waning in Once Fervently Catholic Spain

Those changes prompted Madrid's archbishop, Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, to announce, "Madrid has turned into Sodom and Gomorrah."

Zapatero also delayed putting into effect a church-backed law, passed under the last government, that would have introduced compulsory religion classes for all children in public schools. The government has instead proposed optional religion courses, while integrating religion as a cultural topic into other subjects such as Spanish art, history and music.

A nun and a young boy look at a statue of Pope John Paul II outside La Almudena Cathedral in Madrid. Only 14 percent of young people in Spain describe themselves as religious, according to surveys, and church attendance has fallen. (Manu Fernandez -- AP)

Spain's education minister, Alejandro Tiana Ferrer, said the government was not trying to "impose" its new rules, but was seeking an agreement with the Bishops Conference. He said the government had to balance the desires of parents who want to see religion removed from schools entirely with those of groups such as the Association of Catholic Parents, which has collected 3 million signatures opposing the downgrading of religion in schools.

"We have to defend the rights of all kinds of citizens, having different opinions," Ferrer said in an interview. "The debate has not just been about this issue, but about all the relations between the government and the church."

Opponents of the government, particularly in the opposition Popular Party, have accused Zapatero of pursuing a radical anti-church agenda to shore up political support.

"I'm not practicing, but I feel insulted every time these guys go against the church and the principles of Christianity," Gustavo de Aristegui, the foreign affairs spokesman for the Popular Party, said in an interview. "They are making militant Catholics more militant, they are making nonmilitant Catholics militant, and they are making non-practicing Catholics practicing."

Although Spain has been officially secular since 1978, the government and the Catholic Church are still closely intertwined by various laws and generous government subsidies. Spanish taxpayers can check a box on their income tax returns designating a portion of their taxes to go to the church, but the number that does so has fallen to less than 40 percent, said Ferrer, the education minister. But the government still makes up the shortfall with direct subsidies. The government has discussed reducing, but not eliminating, this public support.

About one-third of Spanish primary schoolchildren attend private schools -- the vast majority of them Catholic schools -- and these schools are completely funded by the government.

"It's part of the history, it's part of the culture -- that's why these changes are hard," Ferrer said.

The government has decided for now to delay a measure legalizing euthanasia, which the church intensely opposes. Several weeks ago, the church began distributing anti-euthanasia brochures in its parishes, just as the euthanasia debate was stirring because of the Terri Schiavo case in Florida and the popularity of the 2004 Spanish movie "The Sea Inside," which is about euthanasia.

"Even though it's in their platform, right now they don't want to have another problem with the church," said Fernando Marin, who heads a pro-euthanasia group.

"There's a paradox, because fewer and fewer people are going to church, but the church is more adept at using the media to get its points across," he said.

Correspondent Daniel Williams in Rome contributed to this report.

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