Since the days of the Spanish conquest, Roman Catholic Christians have held a public monopoly on religion in Chile. Only the Catholic Church is allowed to place chaplains in the armed forces, prisons, and hospitals. Only Catholic organizations have enjoyed tax exemptions on property and donations. Religious education, a requirement for students in public schools, has been overwhelmingly Catholic.

That is about to change, thanks to new legislation known as Law 19.638, which grants Protestants and other religious bodies equality with Roman Catholics. Passed by the Chilean Congress in 1999, it took effect this year.

"Article 2 of the law has a very strict declaration that there can't be religious discrimination of any sort now in Chile," Lee Iverson, an American attorney living in Santiago, told Compass Direct news service.

Iverson has worked since 1994 as legal adviser to the Committee of Evangelical Organizations (COE), a consortium of Protestant denominations that lobbied for passage of Law 19.638. Iverson said another chief benefit of the law is its recognition of non-Catholic churches' legal rights to function as public entities.

Iverson cited problems that have arisen in churches because of the old, unwieldy legal code. "In a number of cases, the people who were named as president or vice president of the legal corporation decided not to follow what the church wanted to do, and there is no way you can force them to do that under Chilean law."

For example, if a church building is held by a private corporation, the church's leaders would have little legal recourse if disagreements occurred with corporate officers.

Law 19.638 has been a long time coming. It was first introduced in 1991 by Humberto Lagos, a Baptist attorney serving ...

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