The constitution and other laws and policies generally protect religious freedom. There is no state religion, but the law gives eight religious groups some rights and privileges not given to other religious groups. Lutherans, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Old Believers, Baptists, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jews are the only religious groups represented on the government’s Ecclesiastical Council. Other distinctions relate to the teaching of religion courses in public schools and the right to officiate at marriages without obtaining a civil marriage license from the Ministry of Justice. Religion-specific laws define relations between the state and each of these eight groups. Other religious groups are covered by a general law dealing with religious organizations.
The prime minister chairs the Ecclesiastical Council, an advisory body that meets irregularly to comment on and issue recommendations on religious issues. The council’s recommendations do not carry the force of law, but they typically warrant government attention because of the prime minister’s participation.
Although the government does not require religious groups to register, the law accords registered religious groups a number of rights and privileges, including legal entity status for owning property and conducting financial transactions, as well as tax benefits for donors. Registration allows religious groups to hold services in public places such as parks or public squares. Non-registered groups may not hold worship services in public places.
The law distinguishes between religious groups registered for at least 10 years and those registered for fewer than 10 years, which are subject to annual registration requirements.
By law any 20 citizens or other persons over the age of 18, who have been recorded in the population register, may apply to register as a religious group. Those with temporary residency status, such as asylum seekers and foreign diplomatic staff, may apply to register religious groups only during the authorized period of their residency permits. Ten or more congregations of the same faith or denomination, each with permanent registration status, may form a religious association.
Congregations not belonging to a registered religious association must re-register each year for 10 years. Groups with religious association status, or status as a private society or foundation, may establish recognized places of worship, theological schools, or monasteries. The justice ministry determines whether to register a religious group. The ministry may deny an application if registration 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 in a single faith or denomination. For example, the law prevents any church other than the Latvian Orthodox Church from registering with the word “orthodox” in its name.
The law does not provide a mechanism for the restitution of communal and religious properties confiscated or nationalized during World War II, although some individual properties have been returned to religious organizations in the past via the passage of special legislation.
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 law stipulates that foreign missionaries may hold meetings and proselytize only if invited by domestic religious groups to conduct such activities.
The law stipulates that 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, in first to third grades, who elect to take such classes. The government provides funding for these classes. Students at state-supported national minority schools may attend classes on a voluntary basis on the religion “characteristic of the national minority.” Other religious groups without their own state-supported minority schools may provide religious education only in private schools. Depending on the grade level, courses in public schools range from doctrinal instruction by church-approved instructors, to non-denominational Christian teachings, to overviews of major world religions. Parents can also register their children for voluntary, non-religious ethics classes.
The law criminalizes incitement to hatred on the basis of religious affiliation, although there is no legal definition of a hate crime.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, formerly the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research.