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Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of thought and religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion or belief either alone or in community with others, both in public and in private, and to manifest and propagate one’s religion or belief in worship. It prohibits discrimination based on belief. The constitution provides that rights and freedoms are protected to the extent they do not “prejudice the rights and freedoms of others.”

A colonial-era law criminalizing Obeah and Myalism remains in effect. Potential punishment for practicing Obeah and Myalism includes imprisonment of up to 12 months. Authorities have rarely enforced the law since the country became independent in 1962, and the government reported no enforcement cases during the year.

Registration with the government is not mandatory for religious groups, but groups, including churches or congregations, may incorporate to gain benefits, including the ability to hold land, enter into legal disputes as an organization, and allow their clergy to visit prisoners. Groups seeking incorporated status apply to the Companies Office of Jamaica, an executive agency. The application comprises a standard form and a fee of 24,500 Jamaican dollars ($180). NGOs register through the same form and fee structure. Groups incorporated through this process must subsequently submit annual reports and financial statements to the Companies Office.

Alternatively, groups may petition parliament to be incorporated by parliamentary act. Such groups receive similar benefits to those incorporating through the Companies Office, but parliament does not require annual reports or regulate the organizations it incorporates.

Regardless of incorporation status, religious groups seeking tax-exempt status must register as charities. To be considered a charity, an organization must apply either to the Department of Co-operatives and Friendly Societies, located in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture, and Fisheries, or to the Companies Office. Once registered, groups also submit their registration to the Jamaica Customs Agency in the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service and apply to Tax Administration Jamaica to be considered for tax-free status.

The constitution states religious groups have the right to provide religious instruction to members of their communities. By law, immunizations are mandatory for all children attending both public and private schools; however, exceptions for medical reasons may be granted. The law requires school administrators to adhere to several practices regarding the teaching of religion. No individual may be required to receive religious instruction or participate in religious observances contrary to his or her beliefs. The public school curriculum includes nondenominational religious education, which focuses on the historical role of religion in society and philosophical thought and includes group visits to Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu houses of worship. Students may not opt out of religious education, but religious devotion or practice during school hours is optional. The Jamaican Education Act of 1980 states that, “It shall be the duty of the parent of every child of compulsory school age residing in a compulsory education area to cause him to receive full-time education suitable to his age and ability, and satisfactory to the Educational Board for the area, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.” Under the “or otherwise” phrase in the law, families may homeschool their children.

Churches operate several private schools. Churches also run a number of public schools, for which they receive funding from the government and must abide by Ministry of Education, Youth, and Information rules. Regulations mandate that religious schools receiving public funding must admit students of all faiths and adhere to ministry standards. Religious schools are not subject to any special restrictions; they do not receive special treatment from the government based on their religious or denominational affiliation. Most religious schools are affiliated with Catholic or Protestant churches. The Islamic Council of Jamaica runs two schools.

Foreign religious workers, regardless of affiliation, who visit the country to work with a religious organization must obtain a visa and a work permit from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In September the Supreme Court heard a case brought by the parents of a then-five-year-old child blocked in 2018 from attending Kensington Primary School, a public school, until her dreadlocks were cut. Although the child’s parents did not identify as Rastafarian, nor did they claim they were raising the child as Rastafarian, the case continued to garner attention from advocacy and religious groups who noted the case’s symbolic representation and potential impact on cultural identity and religious expression. This case was reportedly the first to be heard before the Supreme Court that involved a minor with dreadlocks not being allowed to attend school. On September 3, the attorney general filed an affidavit in support of the public school, stating the school’s policy was “targeted at hairstyles that were found to be the source of bad hygiene and disorder in classes.” The Supreme Court was still in deliberation on the case and made no ruling by year’s end. The family involved expressed dismay at the notion that their child was “nasty,” “unsanitary,” or “dirty” due to her hairstyle. In subsequent commentary related to the case, Minister of Culture Olivia Grange stated her ministry would work with the Ministries of Education and Health and the Attorney General’s Office to ensure guidance issued on grooming and appropriate appearance did not target specific hair textures and hairstyles, race, or religion.

Rastafarians said discrimination against their children at schools occurred, mostly in rural areas. This included purported discrimination based on hairstyles and the Rastafarian community’s continued religious opposition to immunization. The government stated immunizations were part of its campaign to reduce the resurgence of many communicable diseases in the country. Although the law allowed immunization exceptions for only medical reasons, Rastafarian students continued to be able to obtain a doctor’s note excusing them from the requirement.

The Jamaican Defense Force (JDF) generally did not accept Rastafarians into its ranks. The JDF noted it did not discriminate based on religion or denomination, but, according to JDF officials, the force’s very strict codes of conduct regarding hair length and the prohibition of marijuana among its members were the “real obstacles” to Rastafarian participation in the force. Reportedly there was no person self-identified as Rastafarian in the JDF.

In June Minister of Justice Chuck responded to significant media and social media pressure when editorials in the nation’s leading newspapers and the public condemned his suggestion in parliament to repeal the 1898 Obeah Act. According to media reports, the minister later stated that his remarks had been “misinterpreted” and that the government considered repealing the Obeah Act only to replace it with a broader law that banned Obeah and addressed “fraudulent activities” related to people’s belief systems. The minister said the Obeah law would remain on the books while the government worked on other legislation to address “fraudulent activities” associated with Obeah and to protect vulnerable persons from exploitation. While no one from the Obeah community publicly commented on the law, observers stated they believed their reluctance to speak out was due to the potential for punishment. According to press, no one had been convicted of an Obeah-related offense in more than two decades, and the religion maintained only a shadow of its former popularity.

In connection with the observance of National Heritage Week on October 13-21, Minister of Education, Youth, and Information Alando Terrelonge stated the theme “Our Heritage… A Great Legacy” summons all Jamaicans to unite “whatever their race, color, religion, or creed.”

According to media, the government took further steps to disburse funds from a trust it established in 2017 to compensate victims of the 1963 Coral Gardens incident. During the incident, for which Prime Minister Andrew Holness apologized in 2017, eight persons were killed and more than 150 were injured in clashes between security forces and a Rastafarian farming community outside Montego Bay. Jamaicans for Justice, a local NGO providing legal representation for the victims and survivors of the violence, said in 2018 that it had finally received all information necessary, including the total number of beneficiaries, to finalize compensation with the Administrator General Department. In June, however, Lewis Brown, treasurer of the Rastafari Coral Gardens Benevolent Society, told media that no disbursements had occurred, and no further information from the government was forthcoming.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and requires the state to refrain from religious education or any other religious activity. It prohibits religious organizations from exercising any political authority or receiving privileges from the state. It states that the people shall not abuse their rights and shall be responsible to use their rights for the public welfare.

The government does not require religious groups to register or apply for certification, but certified religious groups with corporate status do not have to pay income tax on donations and religious offerings used as part of their operational and maintenance expenses. The government requires religious groups applying for corporate status to prove they have a physical space for worship and their primary purpose is disseminating religious teachings, conducting religious ceremonies, and educating and nurturing believers. An applicant must present in writing a three-year record of activities as a religious organization, a list of members and religious teachers, the rules of the organization, information on the method of making decisions on managing assets, statements of income and expenses for the past three years, and a list of assets. The law stipulates that prefectural governors have jurisdiction over groups seeking corporate status in their respective prefecture, and groups must apply for registration with prefectural governments. Exceptions are granted for groups with offices in multiple prefectures, which may register with the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) minister. After the MEXT minister or a prefectural governor confirms an applicant meets the legal definition of a certified religious group with corporate status, the law requires the applicant to formulate administrative rules pertaining to its purpose, core personnel, and financial affairs. Applicants become religious corporations after the MEXT minister or governor approves their application and they register.

The law requires certified religious corporations to disclose their assets, income, and expenditures to the government. The law also authorizes the government to investigate possible violations of regulations governing for-profit activities. Authorities have the right to suspend a religious corporation’s for-profit activities for up to one year if the group violates the regulations.

The law stipulates that worship and religious rituals performed by inmates in penal institutions, alone or in a group, shall not be prohibited.

The law states that schools established by the national and local governments must refrain from religious education or other activities in support of a specific religion. Private schools are permitted to teach specific religions. The law also states that an attitude of religious tolerance and general knowledge regarding religion and its position in social life should be valued in education. Both public and private schools must develop curricula in line with MEXT standards. These standards are based on the law, which states that schools should give careful consideration when teaching religion in general to junior and high school students.

Labor law states a person may not be disqualified from union membership on the basis of religion.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

According to the president of the Japanese Falun Dafa Association, Shen Yun Performing Arts (Falun Dafa’s performance company) faced obstacles to renting performance spaces. He reported discrimination from venues, attributing it to intimidation of their owners and operators by the Chinese embassy in Tokyo and stating that an increasing number of venues were reluctant to rent their spaces to Shen Yun Performing Arts. The president stated he was told the Chinese embassy contacted elected officials for the purpose of intimidation related to the Falun Dafa. The government, however, continued to grant status to Chinese nationals self-identifying as Falun Gong practitioners, allowing them to remain in the country, while also allowing overseas artists, many of whom were Falun Gong devotees, to enter the country in conjunction with performances.

According to the JUA, the government showed some willingness to protect Uighurs in the country and engaged in limited direct diplomacy with Chinese government officials on the issue.

The government funded three rituals related to the imperial succession during the year. Critics, including Christian and Buddhist representatives, voiced concern that the imperial succession rituals were related to Shinto, noting that the constitution establishes separation of religion and state and stipulates that “no religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority.” The government acknowledged that the rituals included a religious aspect but stated that the constitution allowed for the staging of imperial successions and that the use of state funds was consistent with the previous enthronement in 1990. The Tokyo High Court in February dismissed a lawsuit challenging the use of state funding, but a similar suit remained pending at year’s end.

The MOJ’s Human Rights Bureau continued to operate its hotline for human rights inquiries available in six different foreign languages – English, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, Portuguese, and Vietnamese. In May the MOJ reported that in 2018 (latest statistics available) its human rights division received 164 inquiries related to potential religious freedom violations, compared with 214 in 2017. It confirmed eight cases (compared with 14 in 2017) as highly likely to be religious freedom violations, out of 20,012 suspected human rights violations. The MOJ assisted the potential victims in all eight cases by mediating between the parties, calling on human rights violators to rectify their behavior, or referring the complainants to competent authorities for legal advice. These MOJ measures, however, were not legally binding. The MOJ declined to provide further details on these cases, citing privacy concerns.

According to the ACA, central and prefectural governments had certified 180,665 groups as religious groups with corporate status as of the end of 2018. The large number reflected local units of religious groups registering separately. The government certified corporate status for religious groups when they met the requirements, according to the Japanese Association of Religious Organizations (JAORO), an interfaith NGO representing numerous religions and groups.

According to the MOJ, penal institutions gave inmates access to 9,058 collective and 6,310 individual religious ritual activities, including worship and counseling sessions by civil volunteer chaplains in 2018, the most recent year for which figures were available. An estimated 1,840 volunteer chaplains from Shinto, Buddhist, Christian, and other religious groups were available to prisoners as of January, according to the National League of Chaplains, a public interest incorporated foundation that trains chaplains.

The country remained strict in its refugee screening process, which has been criticized by UNHCR and NGOs. According to an MOJ press release, the ministry granted refugee status, based on the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its protocol, to at least two applicants who had a well-founded fear of being persecuted for religious reasons in 2018 (latest statistics available). In one case, there were credible concerns that an armed faith-based group could persecute the victim if he or she repatriated. In the second case, the applicant had a well-founded fear of being persecuted by her government for having converted from her original religion to another while in Japan, according to the MOJ. The MOJ concluded that arrest, detention, and torture of other converts in her country; her open criticism of her original religion; and, the originating government’s belief that her conversion also led her child to abandon the religion was highly likely to result in persecution if she returned. There were also at least two individuals granted refugee status for religious reasons in 2017.

The government continued to grant special permits to stay on humanitarian grounds or temporary stay visas to most of the approximately 300 Rohingya Muslims who entered the country on the basis of ethnic and religious persecution in Burma. The majority of these individuals resided in the country for more than five years, some for more than 15 years. Of the approximately 300 Rohingya Muslims in the country, the government granted refugee status to 18 individuals, most recently in 2015, according to a Rohingya representative. The representative also said approximately 18 additional undocumented Rohingya Muslims were not associated with any formal resettlement program and were prohibited from obtaining employment. Their children born in Japan remained stateless. The remaining Rohingya Muslims in the country were legally permitted to reside in the country on humanitarian grounds, which allowed them to be employed, and required regular renewal of their status by regional immigration offices. No Rohingya Muslims from Burma were deported during the year.

The government continued to grant residential status or citizenship through naturalization to most Uighur Muslims from China, who originally came to Japan for the purpose of study in most cases, with the number totaling approximately 3,000 at year’s end. The government did not deport any Uighur Muslims, nor did it grant refugee status to any of the 10 who applied in 2017 on the basis of ethnic or religious persecution in China, according to the JUA. The government had not yet decided if it would grant refugee status to the 10 applicants at year’s end, JUA reported.

The government formulated an action plan for accommodating the religious needs of Muslim visitors to the county, releasing manuals to help the tourism industry better understand Islamic culture and customs and to share best practices and practical advice.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future