President’s minister gets a reprieve from the constitutional court

The Sala IV constitutional court once again has decided that a section of the Costa Rican Constitution is unconstitutional. The decision, released after a vote Wednesday, allows Melvin Jiménez Marín to continue serving as minister of the Presidencia, a powerful position in the executive branch.

The appointment of Jiménez had been challenged because Article 142 (3) of the Constitution says that a government minister must be secular. Jiménez is an ordained Lutheran priest who holds the rank of bishop. The phrase in Spanish is ser del estado seglar.

In a summary released by the Poder Judicial, the Sala IV agreed with an argument that had been advanced informally.

The court decided that the prohibition of clerics only related to the Roman Catholic Church due to what is said were historical and constitutional reasons. However, the Costa Rican Constitutional clearly recognizes other religions in Article 75 that gives them the right to exercise their beliefs freely.

Juménez held a press conference after the ruling was released in which he said the role of a bishop in the Lutheran Church was different than that of a similarly placed Catholic because Lutherans do not accept authority from foreigners. Presumably he meant the pope in Rome.

The Poder Judicial in its belief summary also said that Sala IV magistrates said the constitutional limitation also violated the American Convention on Human Rights because it prohibits participation in public matters.

Two magistrates disagreed with the decision, and one said the case should not have been accepted.

Magistrate Nancy Hernández López said that Jiménez clearly was not secular whether or not he still was a bishop. She said the prohibition was justified because a cleric could have a strong influence as a minister, an influence that would be diluted if the individual was simply a lawmakers and one of 57.

Magistrate Luis Fernando Salazar Alvarado said that whether or not Jiménez had stepped down as bishop or was suspended from his religious duties he could assume them easily if he left government.
Magistrate Paul Rueda Leal said that the appeal against Jiménez had been filed too early and before the minister actually took office.

The Constitution is full of such prohibitions. Even to be a magistrate a candidate has to be secular, it says There also are age and citizenship requirements. These would seem to be put in doubt by the Sala IV decision.

The court last made news in challenging the Constitution when it decided on the second attempt that former president Óscar Arias Sánchez could run again for that office even though the Constitution said he could not.

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