According to members of the evangelical Christian community, several smaller religious communities that formed “house churches,” also known as unofficial worship locations, continued to refuse to register their organizations, stating they preferred not to provide the government with access to internal personal information. Sources stated that these unregistered groups could neither own property nor have bank accounts in their name; however, the sources said the government did not interfere with these organizations for their refusal to comply with the law.
On September 23, the foreign minister inaugurated the Single Window of Worship, an office designed to help expedite the process for religious and spiritual organizations to register their legal status, amendment of statutes, internal regulations, and structure of their respective administrative bodies with the government. The objective of the new office, according to government officials, was to ensure that the registration requirements were in line with the constitution. Religious entities affected by this new regulation could review the final wording and legal technical framework of the Single Window. The Single Window office began operating through the MFA on September 25.
As of the end of the year, the registry of the MFA’s Office of Religion and Nongovernmental Organizations continued to list 434 registered religious groups and approximately nine religious groups in the process of registering – the same numbers for 2016. The complexity of the registration procedure, including registering the legal name of the organization, reportedly caused many organizations to seek legal assistance in order to comply.
Church leaders continued to work with the government on a legislative proposal exempting churches from the registration requirements for the next five years. In July the constitutional court denied a 2015 petition submitted by evangelical Protestant leaders challenging the religious registration law; no interested parties appealed the court’s decision.
The Bolivian National Association of Evangelicals sent a letter to the foreign minister on September 27, raising what it said was governmental preferential treatment of indigenous groups and citing the fee structure difference to obtain operating licenses for spiritual and religious groups as an example. The government did not respond to the request during the year.
Government leaders continued to criticize religious leaders who publicly commented on political issues. In October Bishop Ricardo Centellas Guzman, the president of the Bolivian Episcopal Conference of Catholic Bishops (CEB), said the country could not afford to re-elect President Morales for a currently unconstitutional fourth term in office, lest the democratic country turn into “a dictatorship.” The president responded directly to the Bishop’s comments, stating, “Some priests do not tolerate Indians being president.” On December 10, Secretary General of the CEB Aurelio Pesoa responded to the November 28 constitutional court decision allowing President Morales to seek re-election indefinitely, stating that these decisions highlighted a “regression” of democratic rights and freedoms in the country during the year. Several religious leaders also said that access to the government and their ability to disagree with the government on political issues was limited.
A representative from the Jewish community stated that the Jewish community had no contact with the president and had not cultivated any kind of relationship with the Morales administration.
On April 12, the CEB rejected the government’s legislative proposal that would decriminalize abortion under certain circumstances and stated that the government excluded the Catholic Church in the official debate regarding such changes to current legislation. The CEB also charged the government with discriminating against the religious beliefs of the “majority of the Bolivian population,” which it stated was against abortion. President Morales stated that high officials in the government were not responsible for the draft legislation and that the Legislative Assembly, operating as an entity independent of the executive branch, was in full control of the legislative process. The Chamber of Deputies approved the measure on September 28 and sent it to the Senate for approval. On December 6, the Senate approved by two-thirds vote and without amendments Article 157 of the penal code, detailing the legality of abortion under certain circumstances.
In February the Chamber of Deputies ratified OAS conventions against discrimination and intolerance and against racism and racial discrimination. Religious organizations, including the Catholic and Protestant Churches, and civil society institutions objected to the government’s ratification on the basis that the ambiguity and breadth of the definitions of “intolerance” in the conventions could violate freedom of expression and religion.
Christian groups continued to challenge the government concerning the legality of a May 2016 gender identity law allowing transgender individuals to change officially their name gender to reflect their chosen sex on all official documents. In June the CEB and the United Evangelical Churches presented a formal request to the Constitutional Tribunal (TCP) to review the constitutionality of the law. Representatives of the Catholic Church stated they sought to defend the “nuclear family, marriage between a man and a woman, and the values and principles that the family brings to society,” through the constitutional challenge. On November 9, the TCP ruled that a portion of the gender identity law was unconstitutional, specifically the article allowing transgender individuals to “exercise all fundamental, political, labor, civil, economic, and social rights.” Most observers said the ruling meant transgender individuals no longer had the right to marry or adopt a child.
Several evangelical Protestant leaders stated that government officials continued to host and participate in interfaith meetings, but the government would often begin with a ritual from an indigenous group faith rather than from another group attending the event. Some Protestant leaders said government officials attended the religious ceremonies of some denominations more than of others; they also said the government gave preference to certain groups to participate in official ceremonies. Other observers, however, said senior government officials, including the vice president and regional governors, also attended Catholic masses in their official capacity.
Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders said the government continued to favor an Andean spiritual philosophy, especially the philosophy of the ethnic Aymara community, over other religious beliefs, for government use in public statements and ceremonies. They stated this was a violation of the constitution’s separation of religion and state.