Spain's military in row over flags at half mast for Easter

National ombudsman criticises ruling at all military installations as country is constitutionally a secular state

A constitutional row has broken out after Spain’s ministry of defence ordered all military installations to fly the flag at half mast over Easter to commemorate the death of Jesus Christ.

It is the second year running that the defence ministry has issued an order to the effect that “from 14.00 on Holy Thursday until 00.01 on Resurrection Sunday the national flag must be flown at half mast at all military units, bases, centres and barracks, as well as the ministry of defence and its regional departments”.

A defence ministry spokesman said that flying the flag at half mast for religious reasons was “in keeping with tradition” and was “part of the secular tradition of the armed forces”.

But Francisco Fernández Marugán, the national ombudsman, criticised the move on the grounds that Spain is constitutionally a secular state. Article 16.3 of the 1978 Spanish constitution states: “No religion shall have a state character. The public authorities shall take into account the religious beliefs of Spanish society and shall consequently maintain appropriate cooperation relations with the Catholic church and other confessions.”

Spanish flags at half mast.
Spanish flags at half mast. Photograph: Mariscal/EPA

In a study carried out in 2018 by the Spanish Centre for Sociological Research, 68.5% of Spaniards identified themselves as Catholics and 26.4% as atheists. There are approximately 2 million Muslims and 50,000 Jews in Spain. Fewer than half of Spanish Catholics ever attend mass.

Fernández Marugán rejected the argument put forward by the ministry, led by María Dolores de Cospedal, based on a 2017 ruling that members of the armed forces are authorised “to take part in celebrations of a religious nature in which the military traditionally takes part”.

He argued that the ruling did not anticipate “military funeral honours for religious motives, such as the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ”.

The ombudsman said that “even if this tradition has acquired a ‘secular’ connotation over the years there is no doubt that it also has a religious one”, adding that “these practices could lead people to think that the state was more inclined to honour one religion than another” and that a non-confessional state had to demonstrate neutrality in regard to the various religions.


Stephen Burgen in Barcelona

The GuardianTramp

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