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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Costa Rica

International Religious Freedom Report 2003
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The Constitution establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion. However, persons of all denominations freely practice their religion without government interference.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 19,652 square miles, and its population is approximately 4 million.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Religion, 72 percent of the population is Catholic, with 40 percent of that figure actively practicing Catholicism. A November 2001 Demoscopia, Inc. poll found that an estimated 19 percent belong to other Christian, non-Catholic churches. Approximately 1 percent of the population practiced non-Christian faiths and 10 percent practiced no religion at all. The non-Catholic Christian population is divided among the mainstream Protestant denominations, such as the Methodist, Baptist, and Episcopalian churches, and also among the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists. A Mormon temple in San Jose serves as a regional worship center for Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Jehovah's Witnesses have a strong presence on the Caribbean coast and represent less than 1 percent of the population. Seventh-day Adventists operate a university, attracting students from throughout the Caribbean basin. Non-Christian religions, including Judaism, Islam, Taoism, Hare Krishna, Scientology, and the Baha'i Faith, claim membership throughout the country with the majority of worshippers residing in the country's Central Valley.

The country's tradition of tolerance and professed pacifism has attracted many religious groups. The Jewish population constitutes less than 1 percent of the country's total; many of its members found refuge before and during the Second World War. The mountain community of Monteverde, a popular tourist destination, was founded during the Korean War by a group of Quakers from the United States, acting on their convictions as conscientious objectors. The country welcomed this community, as well as those of Mennonites, Beechy Amish, and other pacifist religious groups.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.

The Constitution establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion and requires that the State contribute to its maintenance; however, it also prohibits the State from impeding the free exercise of other religions that do not impugn universal morality or proper behavior. Members of all denominations freely practice their religion without government interference. In the event of a violation of religious freedom, the victim's remedy is to file a lawsuit with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, which may order the defendant to pay a fine, serve jail time, or compensate the plaintiff for such discrimination.

There is no general tax exoneration for the Catholic Church or any other church; there is an exoneration only for real estate that is used directly for worship by any religious organization. The blanket exoneration previously enjoyed by the Catholic Church was amended in 1992. The law allows for the Government to provide land to the Catholic Church. In some cases, the Government retains ownership of the land but grants the Church free use. In other situations, property simply is donated to the Church. This second method commonly is used to provide land for the construction of local churches. These methods do not meet all needs of the Church, which also buys some land outright. Government-to-Church land transfers are not covered under any blanket legislation. Instead, they are handled by specific legislative action once or twice per year.

The Government does not inhibit the establishment of churches through taxes or special licensing for religious organizations. However, churches must incorporate to have legal standing, like any other organization, and must have a minimum of twelve members.

Various traditionally Catholic religious holidays are considered national holidays. However, if an individual wishes to observe another religious holiday, the Labor Code provides the necessary flexibility for that observance, upon the employer's approval.

Although not mandatory, Catholic religious instruction is provided in the public schools. Students may obtain exemptions from this instruction with the permission of their parents. The school director, the student's parents, and the student's teacher must agree on an alternative course of instruction for the exempted student during the time of the Catholic instruction. The exempted student is encouraged to remain on school grounds during this time. Religious education teachers in public schools must be certified by the Roman Catholic Church Conference, which does not certify teachers from other denominations or faiths. This certification is not required of public school educators who teach subjects other than religion. Denominational and nondenominational private schools are free to offer any religious instruction they choose.

Only officials of the Catholic Church can officiate marriages that are automatically recognized by the state. In addition, the government traditionally affords the Catholic Church an opportunity to participate in social, economic and political events. The Catholic Church has been actively involved in negotiations to end two recently concluded labor strikes, one by public school teachers and one by electrical/telecom (ICE) workers. The Archbishop of San Jose served as a witness to an earlier agreement between the Government and the ICE unions, which was concluded in February. The Archbishop also recently signed a manifesto against child labor during a ceremony that was attended by President Abel Pacheco and leading members of the media.

The Government does not restrict the establishment of churches. All applications for the establishment of places of worship are submitted to the local municipality, and must comply with safety and noise regulations. New churches, primarily evangelical Protestant churches that are located in residential neighborhoods, occasionally have conflicts with local governments due to neighbors' complaints about noise and traffic. Some churches reportedly have been closed by municipalities, health departments, or police as a result of such conflicts. In contrast, established Catholic Churches often were built around a municipal square and rarely present such problems.

Despite the official status of the Catholic Church, the Constitution places strict limits on the involvement in politics of any clergy or layman motivated by religion.

Foreign missionaries and clergy of all denominations work and proselytize freely.

Restrictions on Religious Freedoms

Government policy and practice contributed to the generally free practice of religion.

Catholic instruction is provided in all public schools. Parents have the option of sending their children to private schools, which may offer alternative religious instruction. Parents do not have the option of home schooling their children.

The majority of state-run hospitals in the country have Catholic priests on staff who console sick and dying patients. However, Protestants and other non-Catholics have voiced concern that their clergy must follow routine administrative procedures for the general public to gain entrance into most hospitals. These routine administrative procedures can be strict and cumbersome. Some Protestant ministers have administrative agreements with hospitals that permit their uninhibited entrance; however, the hospital director may revoke these agreements at any time. At the end of the period covered by this report, a Protestant minister in the Legislative Assembly who represents the Renovation Party was seeking passage of a bill that would sanction in law the rights of non-Catholic clergy to enter and work in hospitals to console sick and dying patients. The law also would provide a legal framework for the establishment and operation of non-Catholic churches, including the accreditation of their officials.

While the required oath for government service includes the phrase "before God and country," an alternate oath is available to those who choose to use it.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Amicable relations exist among members of the country's different religions, including religious minorities. The country has a history of tolerance.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. Embassy officials have met with the Archbishop of San Jose to discuss economic, social and labor issues. The Embassy also has contact with the Protestant minister who holds a seat in the Legislative Assembly and has an interest in children's issues. Finally, the Embassy coordinates with the Ministry of Foreign Relations' Director of Religion regarding multilateral efforts to ban all forms of human cloning.

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