Religious Freedom in Costa Rica

The majority of Costa Ricans identify themselves as Roman Catholic, and although the constitution grants freedom of religion, Catholicism is the official religion of the country.  Approximately 17 percent of the population identify themselves as evangelical Protestants.  According to the US State Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has approximately 35,000 members in Costa Rica. There is also a small population of Jews, Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, members of the Unification Church, followers of Islam, Taoism, the Baha’i Faith, and others. The government generally respects religious freedom through its policy and practice.

Freedom to practice religion is granted in Article 75 of the Costa Rica Constitution. In addition to establishing Catholicism as the official religion, the Constitution also provides that the government will contribute to maintaining it. For example, through specific legislation, the government can give land to the Catholic Church either through title grants (ownership of the land by the church) or through temporary development grants (ownership maintained by the government). The church also receives funds for repairs or maintenance of its churches and is exempt from paying income and real estate tax. Additionally, marriages performed in the Catholic Church are the only marriages automatically recognized by the government. Other religions must go through the process of a civil union for the marriage to be recognized by the government. On the other hand, members of the Catholic clergy cannot hold specified political positions such as president, vice president, cabinet members, and Supreme Court justice, whereas clergy of other religions can.

Additionally, Catholic instruction is given to children in public schools. In the past, the church had complete control of the employment of the teachers who taught religion, but that authority was later annulled by the Supreme Court of Costa Rica. Although the instruction is notmandatory, if a student wants an exemption, the student’s teacher, parents, and the school director must agree on an alternative form of instruction during the time allotted for religious instruction. There have been some complaints from religious leaders regarding this practice because sometimes a letter from the child’s religious leader has been required, or the children had to remain in the classroom during the religious instruction because of a lack of resources to provide other instruction. Although parents do not have the option of homeschool in Costa Rica, private schools have the ability to offer or not offer religious instruction as they desire.

The government may not impede the practice of religion when it is practiced according to universally accepted morality. People who feel that the government of Costa Rica or another private entity has violated their religious freedom may file a lawsuit in the Supreme Court, and may also do so do to challenge the constitutionality of a specific law or regulation of religion. Also, the administrative courts are available for a person seeking permission to sue the government for discriminatory acts. According to the US State Department’s most recent report on religious freedom in Costa Rica, there were five recent lawsuits filed in the Supreme Court based on religious discrimination. One of the cases involved a school not allowing a Seventh-day Adventist student to reschedule an exam that was scheduled for a Saturday. Another case several years ago involved a girl attending public school who did not want to wear the school uniform because it displayed a picture of the Virgin Mary, which went against her beliefs relating to the display of idols. The court ruled that although the government was required by the Constitution to help maintain the Catholic Church, the government must allow others to practice their religious beliefs as long as those beliefs do not interfere with what is customarily accepted as moral. Therefore, the court ruled that the school could not require the girl to wear a religious symbol that went against her religious beliefs. 

Although the State Department reports some instances of societal discrimination based on religion (including anti-Semitic actions), it also reports that prominent leaders had taken steps toward promoting religious freedom within the country.