The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom. There is no state religion. The law, however, gives eight religious groups--Lutheran, Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Old Believers, Baptist, Methodist, Adventist, and Jewish--certain rights and privileges that other religious groups do not have. For example, these groups are exempt from registration requirements. Only members of these eight religious groups serve on the government’s Ecclesiastical Council. Other distinctions relate to the teaching of religion courses in public schools. Religion-specific laws define relations between the state and each of these eight groups. Other religious groups are covered by a general Law on Religious Organizations.
The law distinguishes between religious groups that have been registered for at least 10 years and those that have not; organizations in the latter group are subject to annual registration requirements. In practice this has resulted in additional bureaucratic requirements for religious groups recently established in the country that are not applicable to longer-established groups.
The Ecclesiastical Council is an advisory body chaired by the prime minister which comments on and issues recommendations regarding religious issues. Although its recommendations do not carry the force of law, the prime minister’s participation on the council means that its recommendations are often given government attention. In December the council proposed that optional religious education in public schools be extended beyond the third grade, the year it currently ends, and tasked the education ministry with submitting a position on the proposal. Only eight religious organizations are represented on the council, limiting the input of other religious organizations into government decisions on religious matters.
The Ministry of Justice established the Consultative Council of Religious Affairs in 2009 as an informal body of experts on religious issues. It is an advisory body that the government can consult, but its recommendations do not carry the force of law. It includes 14 representatives drawn from traditional Christian churches, the Jewish community, the indigenous Dievturi group, and the government’s enterprise registry. Since its organization the consultative council has been relatively inactive. It did not meet during the year.
Although the government does not require the registration of religious groups, the Law on Religious Organizations accords religious organizations certain rights and privileges if they register, such as status as a separate legal entity for owning property or for financial transactions, as well as tax benefits for donors. Registration also eases the rules for holding public gatherings.
According to the law, any 20 citizens or other persons over the age of 18 who have been recorded in the population register may apply to register a religious group. Persons with temporary residency status, such as asylum seekers and foreign diplomatic staff, may register religious groups only during the authorized period of their residency permit. Ten or more congregations of the same denomination, with permanent registration status, may form a religious association. Congregations that do not belong to a registered religious association must reregister each year for 10 years. Only groups with religious association status may establish theological schools or monasteries. The decision to register a group is made by the Ministry of Justice with technical review by the enterprise registry. The Justice Ministry may deny the application on grounds that registration of the group as a religious organization would threaten human rights, the democratic structure of the state, public safety, welfare, or morals.
The law does not permit simultaneous registration of more than one religious association (church) in a single confession. In particular the law prevents any church other than the Latvian Orthodox Church from registering with the word “Orthodox” in its name.
Visa regulations require foreign religious workers to present letters of invitation and either an ordination certificate or evidence of religious education that corresponds to a local bachelor’s degree in theology. The process remained cumbersome, although the government was generally cooperative in helping to resolve difficult visa cases in favor of missionaries.
The law stipulates that foreign missionaries may hold meetings and proselytize only if invited by domestic religious organizations to conduct such activities. Some religious groups criticized this provision.
The law stipulates that only representatives of certain Christian churches (Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, Orthodox Christian, Old Believer, Baptist, Methodist, and Adventist) and Jewish groups may teach religion in public schools to students who volunteer to take the classes. The government provides funds for this education. Students at state-supported national minority schools also may receive education on a voluntary basis on the religion “characteristic of the national minority.” Other denominations and religious groups that do not have their own state-supported minority schools may provide religious education only in private schools. Depending on the grade level, courses can range from sectarian instruction with church-approved instructors to nondenominational Christian teachings to overviews of major world religions. Parents can register their children for nonreligious ethics classes instead of Christian-based courses. The Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox churches have their own seminaries. The University of Latvia’s theological faculty is nondenominational.
The criminal law separately criminalizes incitement to hatred on the basis of religious affiliation.
The government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: Good Friday, Easter Monday, and Christmas. For several years, the Orthodox Church has been seeking official recognition for Good Friday, Easter Monday, and Christmas as observed according to the Orthodox Church’s calendar, but the government had not adopted this proposal by the end of the year.