The city council voted Thursday against opening impeachment proceedings against Rio Mayor Marcelo Crivella, rejecting accusations he misused his office to grant favors to members of his evangelical church.
Last week, the newspaper O Globo reported that Crivella held a meeting with members of Brazil's Universal Church of Kingdom of God at which he discussed helping them access public services. Crivella was a bishop in the evangelical church and his religiousness has been a subject contention since he took office last year.
Some city council members contended the mayor was inappropriately offering favors to church members and filed requests for his impeachment. But the council voted 29 to 16 Thursday against opening those proceedings.
"If the mayor wasn't evangelical, if the mayor had met with any other group, of another religion, would there be as much attention focused on this?" asked Alexandre Isquierdo, a city councilman who voted against opening the proceedings.
Supporters and detractors filled the gallery of the chamber during the debate and vote and often shouted so loudly that the council members couldn't be heard as they spoke.
The Rio de Janeiro state prosecutors' office has been investigating since last year whether Crivella has violated the principle that the state should be secular. On Wednesday, it filed a civil action against the mayor, alleging administrative misconduct.
After the vote, Crivella thanked his allies in the council for rejecting the impeachment requests, which he said "had no legal basis."
"I also want to make an appeal in this moment," he said in a statement. "An appeal to the opposition and to the government's base, that we can overcome all this, which has just been swept into the trash heap of history, and think about our city of Rio de Janeiro."
Crivella's election has exposed cultural divisions in Brazil, which is known for its easygoing attitude toward sex and its bacchanal Carnival celebrations but where an increasing number of people identify as evangelical and members of evangelical churches have taken on an increasingly important role in politics.
Crivella's connection to the Universal church has raised hackles before. He was criticized for skipping last year's Carnival - an almost unthinkable snub in a city where mayors traditionally have opened the celebrations. He also took heat for cutting city funding for Rio's gay pride parade last year.