Churches and religious groups in Mexico may soon be able to own broadcast radio and television stations if a controversial new legislative proposal is enacted. The passage of the new law would be a significant victory for religious groups that have been battling for decades for such legislation.

The proposal is part of the new media reform package promised by Mexican President Vicente Fox, who says it's designed to open free channels of communication through an independent and impartial press.

Churches remain the only organizations that are still barred from the right to engage in broadcasting. All other segments of society have such a right under Mexico's emerging democracy.

Strict anti-clerical laws have limited the power and influence of the Catholic Church for most of the past century in Mexico. These laws are the legacy of a bloody civil war in the 1920s between the Church and supporters of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. That party had ruled Mexico uninterrupted for 71 years until the election of President Fox two years ago.

But even before that, a gradual thaw in church-state relations had been taking place. The 1992 constitutional reforms restored ownership rights to the Church. The wearing of clerical robes and vestments in public was allowed, and diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Mexico City were resumed. But it has taken another full decade for the government to address the issue of whether the Catholic Church and other religious groups should be allowed to own their own radio and television stations.

Javier Moctezuma Barrigan, the government official in charge of religious affairs at the Interior Ministry, notes that the opening up of the media was a campaign pledge of President Fox, who is a practicing Roman Catholic. "Well, of course, President Fox has been very open. He is a Catholic himself and he practices his religion in a very open way," says Mr. Barrigan. "He was at the mass where the pope canonized Juan Diego [during the Pope's visit in July]. What we have today is a maturity in society that allows the government to discuss these issues."

Sergio Sarmiento is the Editor in Chief of News at the television network, TV Azteca, and a syndicated newspaper columnist. He says allowing religious groups to own broadcast operations would be a significant step forward for democracy in Mexico. "I do believe that there is no reason why we should restrict peoples' freedoms in such a way as not to allow them to run radio or TV stations because they belong to a church. That's a principal reaction. That's what I believe in; I believe that people be allowed their freedom," says Mr. Sarmiento. "I'm basically a liberal in the traditional sense of the word. I respect peoples' freedoms if they do not affect other peoples' interests and I do not believe that this should affect other peoples' interests."

Although 86 percent of the Mexican population is Roman Catholic, Mr. Sarmiento predicts religious broadcasting here will probably be controlled by Protestant interests, and far from being spiritual, it would most likely churn out hard hitting programs aimed at an unsophisticated audience. "Of course, traditional Mexican Catholicism is totally different from that kind of radical Protestantism in the U.S. popular evangelical Protestantism. However, I do believe that would be the general trend, because that is the general trend of television worldwide," he says. "Open television is a media of such a nature that reaches to many people that you have to reach to the lowest common denominator."

Even though the bill is being proposed by the government, it's passage is far from a foregone conclusion. Unlike President Fox's traditional National Action Party, the PRI, which is now the main opposition party, is still wary of the church and religion in general.

PRI Senator Fidel Herrera, is a principal power broker in the Mexican Senate in charge of considering just such legislation. He stresses that, although he and his colleagues will keep open minds, they simply won't allow anyone to use a radio program as a political soap box or a pulpit for spreading fanaticism.

"In the United States, you see many cases of that nature, where preachers or religious groups or sects go public and then either collect a large amount of money or direct people into fanaticism," says Mr. Herrera. "You then have these chapters such as the thing, which happened in Guyana not long ago, and then with the Waco thing, and some other things." He was referring to the 1978 mass suicide by some 900 followers of Jim Jones in Guyana and the death in 1993 of 74 followers of David Koresh in the inferno at their compound in Waco, Texas.