The Dominican Republic (DR), occupying two-thirds of the island Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea, is a predominantly Christian nation, with 95 percent of the population of 10.08 million claiming Christian beliefs. The name of the capital (Santo Domingo) and of the residents (Dominicans) are reminiscent of the country’s historical connection to the religious order of Dominican fathers. The largest religious group is the Roman Catholic Church, adhered to by 69 percent of Dominicans, although practiced by only 40 percent. Traditional Protestants; evangelical Christian groups, including Assemblies of God, Church of God, Baptists, and Pentecostals (18.2 percent of the population ); Seventh-day Adventists (.02 percent with 227,061 members ); Jehovah’s Witnesses; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (.01 percent with 118,557 members ) have a much smaller but generally growing presence. The DR is home to Spiritist (2.2 percent) and Baha’i, Buddhist, Chinese Universalist, Jewish (about 300 members ), Muslim (700 to 800 members ), and Neoreligionist faiths (each representing less than 0.1 percent), as well. An unknown number of Dominicans practice a combination of Catholicism and Afro-Caribbean beliefs, witchcraft, or voodoo, but because these practices are not openly accepted, they are usually concealed. Finally, 10.6 percent reportedly do not practice a religion.
The DR is open to religious missionaries, having no immigration restrictions or quotas for religious workers. For longer stays, foreign missionaries generally obtain a one-year multi-entry business visa (commonly known as an “NM” visa) through the Ministry of Foreign Relations, which requires a completed application form, original passport, two passport-sized photos, and a document offering proof as to the business activity from the institution or person in the DR with whom the missionary is affiliated. This visa may be renewed before the original one-year visa has expired.
In recent years, the DR has played host to several regional and local conferences on religious freedom. The first Inter-American Congress on Religious Freedom took place in April 2009, followed by the Inter-America’s first Religious Freedom Festival entitled “Religious Liberty: The Latin American Experience,” sponsored by the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) in May 2009. Speakers in the latter, addressing Santo Domingo’s Palacio de Deportes filled to its 13,000-person capacity, urged separation of church and state and denounced the DR’s current favoritism toward the Catholic Church. In February 2010, the Catholic University of Santo Domingo, Latin American Consortium for Religious Liberty, and International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University co-sponsored a conference attended by legislators, government officials, scholars, and religious leaders regarding “Religion and the Legislative Framework for the New Dominican Constitution.”
In April 2012, the DR hosted a worldwide event: IRLA’s Seventh World Congress entitled “The Secular Challenge to Religious Freedom. This meeting brought together world religious leaders and scholars to talk about various issues facing religious freedom.
Constitutional Provisions and Ordinances on Religion
The Domincan Republic is a civil law country based on French Civil Codes and governed by the Political Constitution of the Dominican Republic (“Constitution”), promulgated January 26, 2010. The Constitution allows for the “generally free practice of religion.” It invokes the name of God in its preamble, while the national motto per Article 34 is “God, Homeland, Liberty” and is displayed on the national flag above a shield containing an open Bible (the only national flag with a Bible). Constitutional provisions provide for protection against discrimination on religious grounds and “the freedom of conscience and worship, subject to public order and respect for social norms.” The Constitution also allows for related freedoms of association, assembly, and expression.
In a significant development, the Constitution now extends to all religious groups the right to celebrate civilly recognized religious marriages, a right previously held exclusively by the Catholic Church (only Catholic marriages and non-religious civil unions were recognized before). Legislation establishing religious marriage requirements for non-Catholic denominations was enacted in August 2011. Unfortunately, the promulgating regulations impose significant responsibilities on clergy who choose to perform marriages under this act, including but not limited to, 1) the responsibility to determine whether each marriage partner is legally qualified to be married (of age, single, etc.), 2) the responsibility to keep an official registry of all people married by said clergy that tracks closely the requirements imposed on a civil registry, and 3) the obligation to maintain documents of all marriage performed which are open to inspection from government officials. Failure to comply with these requirements is subject to criminal misdeamonr sanctions and the payment of monetary fines.
Unlike other Latin American countries, there is no central registry where religious groups must register to become legally a religion. Religious groups can legally operate as unincorporated associations, but lack legal personality and thus cannot hold property or assets, benefit from tax exemptions, employ employees, etc. To obtain legal personality, religious groups typically create a nonprofit civil association under Law 122-05 on the Regulation and Promotion of Nonprofit Associations in the Dominican Republic (“Law 122-05”). This law is not specifically for the creation of religious organizations—it concerns nonprofit civil associations of any type. The legal structure of the association may or may not reflect the religious group’s internal ecclesiastical structure. By law, the association has 5 members (which can be legal entities or individuals) and a board of directors, which may or may not be compatible with the group’s ecclesiastical structure. Religious groups may also incorporate as foundations.
The DR is a signatory the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the “freedom to change [one’s] religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” The DR is also a party to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
In 1954, the Dominican Republic entered into a concordat with the Catholic Church (“Concordat”), making Catholicism the de facto state religion. At the time the Concordat was signed, the Constitution prohibited the establishment of a national religion; however, the Supreme Court of the DR declared the Concordat constitutional in 2008, and it remains in effect today. The Concordat results in great benefits for the Catholic Church, including legal recognition of church law; a complete exoneration from customs duties; and use of public funds to underwrite some church expenses, such as rehabilitation of church facilities. In 2008, for example, the government obtained a site for construction of a new cathedral and religious sanctuary complex in Bayaguana with the promise that it would assume most of the building costs. Although construction was suspended for lack of funds, no other church receives any such direct government aid; rather, appropriations are given to non-Catholic churches on an unofficial, case-by-case basis. While other religious groups may request exoneration from customs duties from the Office of the Presidency, the process is lengthy and demanding. There is also a separate process that Customs has established for nonprofit associations generally to apply for exemption. The association must file certain documentation with Customs to create a central file establishing its entitlement to the exemption, and then may request exemption from duties on specific imports. This is also a very lengthy process. Nonetheless, no requests for customs exoneration were denied in 2010.
Other ties between the Catholic Church and the government are evident in the national observance of Christian and specifically Catholic holidays: Epiphany, Our Lady of Altagracia Day, Good Friday, Corpus Christi, Our Lady of Mercedes Day, and Christmas. All state institutions receive a Catholic blessing, and state celebrations include Catholic masses.
On the educational front, a 2000 amendment to this law (Law 44-00 ) requires public primary and secondary schools to include the Holy Bible as part of their curriculum at least once a week, but this law is not enforced (parents may also request an exemption for their children). The Secretary-General of the Dominican Biblical Society emphasized that the legislation allows for participation of all religious denominations, although the Dominican Bishop’s Conference and the Dominican Confederation of Evangelicals (CODUE) is responsible for designing and submitting curriculum proposals to the National Educational Board, as well as providing training in Biblical instruction for teachers.
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