The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom. The constitution specifically prohibits discrimination based on religion.
The constitution states that there is no official church or religion, but adds that the state “is not atheist or agnostic, nor indifferent to Colombians’ religious sentiment.” Some interpret this statement to mean that the state unofficially sanctions a privileged position for Catholicism, which was the official religion until the adoption of the 1991 Constitution. A 1973 concordat between the Vatican and the government remains in effect, although some of its articles are unenforceable because of constitutional provisions on freedom of religion. A 1994 Constitutional Court decision declared unconstitutional any official government reference to a religious characterization of the country.
Although the 1991 constitution mandates separation of church and state, the Catholic Church retains a privileged status. Accession to a 1997 public law agreement between the state and non-Catholic religious groups is required for non-Catholic groups to minister to military personnel, public hospital patients, and prisoners; to provide chaplaincy services; and to perform marriages recognized by the state. When deciding whether to grant accession to the 1997 agreement, the government considers a religious group’s total membership, its degree of acceptance within society, and other factors such as the organization’s statutes and its required behavioral norms.
The Ministry of Interior (MOI) is the government entity responsible for legally recognizing churches, religious denominations, religious federations and confederations, and associations of religious ministers. A church, religious denomination, federation, or association of ministers can obtain legal recognition directly from the MOI. The entities that have already been legally recognized by the MOI can then confer legal recognition, called “extended public recognition,” to affiliated churches that share the same beliefs. The MOI keeps a public registry of religious entities. Although the application process is often lengthy, the MOI routinely grants legal recognition; the only requirements are submission of a formal request and basic organizational information. In addition, any foreign religious group that wishes to establish a presence must document official recognition by authorities in its home country. The MOI may reject requests that do not comply fully with established requirements, or that violate constitutional rights.
The state recognizes as legally binding only those religious marriages celebrated by the Catholic Church and the 13 religious organizations that are signatories to the 1997 public law agreement, as well as religious groups with an associate status. Members of religious groups that are neither signatories to the agreement nor associates must marry in a civil ceremony for the state to recognize the marriage.
In November President Santos signed into law an antidiscrimination bill that carries a penalty of one to three years in prison or a fine of 5.3 million to 8 million pesos ($2,700-$4,100). The law added a chapter on discrimination to the penal code that includes religious discrimination as a punishable offense.
The Ministry of Foreign Relations issues visas to foreign missionaries and religious group administrators who have received special public recognition. Foreign missionaries are required to possess a special visa, valid for up to two years. Applicants must have a certificate from the MOI confirming that their religious group is registered with the ministry or have a certificate issued by the Catholic archdiocese. Alternatively, they may produce a certificate issued by a recognized religious organization confirming the applicant’s membership and mission in the country. They also require a letter issued by a legal representative of the religious organization stating the organization accepts full financial responsibility for the expenses of the applicant and family, including return to their country of origin or last country of residence. In both cases, applicants must explain the purpose of the proposed sojourn and provide proof of economic means. The government generally permits missionaries to proselytize among the indigenous population, provided the indigenous group welcomes proselytism and visitors do not induce members of indigenous communities to adopt changes that endanger their survival on traditional lands. The Supreme Court has stipulated that no group may force religious conversion on members of indigenous communities.
The constitution recognizes the right of parents to choose the type of education that their children receive, including religious instruction. It also states that no student shall be forced to receive religious education in public schools. Religious groups that have not acceded to the public law agreement may establish their own schools, provided they comply with Ministry of Education requirements. For example, the Jewish community operates its own schools.
The government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: Epiphany, Saint Joseph Day, Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, the Ascension, Corpus Christi, Sacred Heart Day, Saints Peter and Paul Day, the Feast of the Assumption, All Saints’ Day, the Immaculate Conception, and Christmas.