The constitution and other laws and policies generally protect religious freedom. The constitution specifically prohibits religious discrimination.
The constitution states there is no official church or religion, but adds that the state “is not atheist or agnostic, nor indifferent to Colombians’ religious sentiment.” 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. The law prohibits any official government reference to a religious characterization of the country.
Although the constitution mandates separation of church and state, the Catholic Church retains a privileged status. Non-Catholic religious groups must gain accession to a 1997 public law agreement with the state to perform state-recognized marriages and provide chaplaincy services to military personnel, public hospital patients, and prisoners. When deciding whether to grant accession, 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 responsible for legally recognizing churches, religious denominations, religious federations and confederations, and associations of religious ministers, and keeps a public registry of religious entities. Entities legally recognized by the MOI can then confer legal recognition, called “extended public recognition,” to affiliated groups sharing the same beliefs. 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. Any foreign religious group wishing to establish a presence must document recognition 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 performed by the Catholic Church, the 13 religious groups 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.
The penal code includes religious discrimination as a punishable offense, carrying penalties of one to three years in prison or a fine of 5.3 million to 8 million pesos ($2,753-$4,156).
A Constitutional Court ruling states that citizens may be exempt from military service if they can demonstrate a serious and permanent commitment to religious or secular principles that prohibit the use of force. Conscientious objectors who are exempted from military service are required to complete alternative, government-selected public service.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues visas to foreign missionaries and religious group administrators who are members of religious organizations that are legally recognized and registered with the MOI. Foreign missionaries must possess a special visa, valid for up to two years. Applicants must have either a certificate from the MOI confirming their religious group is registered with the ministry or a certificate issued by Church authorities. Alternatively, they may produce a certificate issued by a recognized religious group confirming the applicant’s membership and mission in the country. They also require a letter issued by a legal representative of the religious group 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 community welcomes proselytism and visitors do not induce members of indigenous communities to adopt changes that endanger their survival on traditional lands. A Supreme Court ruling stipulates 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. There is no religious component in the public school curriculum. Religious groups that have not acceded to the public law agreement may establish their own schools, provided they comply with Ministry of Education requirements. The Jewish community operates its own schools. A Constitutional Court ruling obligates schools to implement alternative accommodations for students based on their religion, following the petition of a Seventh-day Adventist university student to miss class on Saturday.