Religion in Spain

by Ryan Leroy Hughes

Religious Context Analysis

The National Statistics Institute estimates the population of Spain to be around 46.5 million. The government does not collect data on religious affiliation and is prohibited from doing so by the Spanish Constitution. According to a study by the Spanish Center for Sociological Research in 2014, about 69% of Spaniards self-identify as Catholics, 2% as other faiths, and about 26% identify with no religion.  Other religious groups, in order of total congregants, include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“LDS Church”), Buddhists, Orthodox Christians, Bahais, Scientologists, Hindus, Christian Scientists and other Christian groups. The number of non-Catholic churches and religious communities in Spain may be larger because some religious groups choose to register as cultural organizations rather than with the Registry of Religious Entities “because places of worship must meet government requirements for health and safety for public gathering places.” 

While this data demonstrates the strong social presence of Roman Catholicism, it should be noted that the number of self-proclaimed Catholics is in decline. The same survey in 2002 reported greater than 80% of the population as self-proclaimed Catholics.  According to a 2008 survey, only 3% of Spaniards consider religion as one of their three most important values.  Of the 71% percent of the total population that identifies with some religion, 9% report attending services at least one time per month, 13% report attending services weekly, and 2% report attending services multiple times each week. 

The Spanish Constitution provides for religious freedom and the freedom of worship by individuals and groups.  The Constitution further states that “no faith shall have the character of a state religion.”  The U.S. Department of State indicated that the government “generally respected” this right in practice and did not tolerate its abuse.  However, taxpayers have “the option of allocating up to 0.7% of their income tax to the Catholic Church or to a nongovernmental organization.”  No other religious communities have this tax benefit. 

The U.S. Department of State does cite local government policies that restrict the religious freedom of minority religious groups. These religious groups, which include the LDS Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Buddhists, do not have bilateral cooperation agreements with the government as do the Jews, Muslims, and Protestants.  While there are no statutory or legal restrictions, some Muslim and non-Catholic Christian groups claim that restrictions and policies at the local level inhibited them from assembling to practice their beliefs and obtaining building permits for constructions of new worship centers.  Additionally, the government funds religious services within the prison system for Catholics and Muslims, but not for Jews or Protestants. 


The Constitution of 1978 is the supreme law of the Spanish legal system and contains numerous provisions and guiding principles pertaining to religious rights in Spain.  State neutrality in Spain does not equate to “secular confessionality” or religious neglect by the government.   Although there is no official state religion, the Constitution does state that “the public authorities shall take the religious beliefs of Spanish society into account and shall consequently maintain appropriate cooperation with the Catholic Church and the other confessions.”  The Constitution recognizes the fundamental rights of religious liberty and freedom of worship for both individuals and groups.  Furthermore, it purports to accord equal treatment under the law with no discrimination on the basis of religion,  the right not to be compelled to make statements regarding one´s religion, beliefs or ideologies, and the right of parents to ensure that their children receive religious and moral instruction that is in accordance with their own convictions.  These rights -amongst others- are considered as fundamental by the Constitution, and therefore granted a special protection regime and considered preeminent to non-fundamental rights by the Courts. 

Under these constitutional principles, the Spanish Parliament passed Organic Act 7/1980 on Religious Freedom.  This religious liberty law requires religious communities to be registered at the Ministry of Justice’s Registry of Religious Entities (“Registry”) in order to be recognized by the State as legal entities.  It also clarifies the constitutional command to “maintain appropriate cooperation” with religious confessions by explaining that the State “shall establish . . . Cooperation Agreements or Conventions with the Churches, Faiths or Religious Communities enrolled in the Registry where warranted by their notorious influence in Spanish society, due to their domain or number of followers.”  The primary instruments of cooperation are the concordats with the Catholic Church and other bilateral agreements negotiated between religious denominations of particular social significance.

Aside from the Constitution, Spain is subject to treaties and decisions of various international human rights bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights, the European Court of Justice and the European Union. 

Concordats and Notorio Arraigo

The constitutional principle of cooperation plays a significant role in the definition of the legal status of churches in Spain. The fundamental provisions determining the legal position of churches and religious communities are found in the Organic Law of Religious Freedom. This law discusses the right of religious freedom in Spain and establishes the procedures for all religious organizations other than the Catholic Church to become legally recognized. 

The Spanish government has historically enacted cooperation agreements or concordats with the Holy See dating back hundreds of years.  A concordat with the Catholic Church forces the remaining religious groups into a hierarchal classification.  The second group is composed of “deeply rooted” religious communities who have a signed agreement with the government comparable to the privileged Catholic Church; however, they receive less favorable treatment as compared to their dominant counterpart.  A third tier exists for religious communities who have registered with the state and have been designated as “deeply rooted” in Spain but are unable to sign agreements with the government. The final tier is registered religions unable to prove their “deeply rooted” status. 

 An agreement that is quasi-analogous to the concordat, known as a bilateral cooperation agreement, has been made available to non-Catholic religions in the second group previously described that have acquired “well-known roots” in Spanish society.   This status is called notorio arraigo or “deeply rooted” and is a prerequisite to the establishment of a non-Catholic religious bilateral cooperation agreement with the government.   A bilateral cooperation agreement provides valuable benefits such as property and income tax exemptions, income tax deductions for member contributions, authority for religious officials to conduct civil marriages, permission to teach religious subjects in public schools and military deferments for missionary service.  They also permit placement of religious teachers and curricula in schools, and chaplains in hospitals, prisons, and the military.  

While any religious group may request notorio arraigo status, the actual requirements are set by Royal Decree 593/2015 of 3 July, regulating the procedure and requisites to be considered a confession of notorio arraigo.    The actual bilateral cooperation agreements can only be created through legislative enactments.   

The LDS Church, Islam, Judaism, Protestantism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhism, and the Orthodox Church have notorio arraigo status.  Of these groups, only the Protestant, Jewish, and Islamic communities have bilateral agreements with the government.   Although the government has granted equal legal status to Judaism, Islam and Protestantism, it only provides financial support to the Catholic Church. 


Spain is a constitutional monarchy divided into legislative, judicial and executive branches. The King is symbolically the head of state, a bicameral parliament is the legislature, and a president or prime minister (“president”) is the head of the executive branch. The judicial branch is independent, and the highest courts are the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. 

Religious policy making in Spain occurs at both the national and the regional levels. The 1978 constitution acted to dilute Spain’s central government by relinquishing certain powers to the regional governments of seventeen autonomous communities. Among these shared powers are executive, legislative, and judicial powers that play important roles in religious policy decision-making. 

While the monarch of Spain is the constitutional head of state, he “exercises only the functions expressly attributed to him by the Constitution and the laws.”  The King’s role is mainly representative and symbolic.  The Crown does not belong to the Executive Branch, but constitutes a separate institution.  After Parliament accepts and backs a candidate for President, the King will formally nominate him (or her). The Parliament therefore elects the President and can also remove him from office. Although religious issues rarely come before the King, he has indirect influence through nominating the President.

Taken from Spain: Law and Religion Framework Overview (2016) (notes omitted). To see the entire report, click on the link below.