The constitution states there is no state church and stipulates freedom for individuals to belong to any religious group and practice any religion, both alone and in community with others, in public or in private, unless doing so is “detrimental to public order, health, or morals.” The constitution also prohibits incitement of religious hatred, violence, or discrimination. Violations are punishable by fines or up to three years in prison. The constitution recognizes the right to refuse military service for religious reasons but requires conscientious objectors to perform alternative service as provided by law.
The law regulates the activities of religious associations and religious societies. Religious associations are defined as churches, congregations, unions of congregations, and monasteries. Religious societies are defined as voluntary organizations whose main activities include religious or ecumenical activities relating to morals, ethics, culture, and social rehabilitation activities outside the traditional forms of religious rites of a church or congregation and need not be connected with a specific church or congregation.
The registration office of the Tartu County Court registers religious associations. Associations that are churches, congregations, and unions of congregations are required to have a management board; only citizens and legal residents may be members of the board. Monasteries are required to have an elected or appointed superior. In order to register formally, a religious association must have at least 12 members, and its management board must submit an application signed and notarized by all board members, the minutes of its constitutive meeting, and a copy of its statutes. The registration requirements for religious associations fall under the law governing nonprofit associations. The law treats registered religious associations as nonprofit entities entitled to some tax benefits, such as a value-added tax exemption. There are more than 550 religious associations registered with the government.
The law does not prohibit activities of religious associations that are not registered. Unregistered religious associations, however, cannot act as legal persons and do not receive tax benefits.
Religious societies are registered according to the law governing nonprofit associations and are entitled to the same tax benefits as religious associations. In order to register as an NGO, a religious society must have a founding contract and statutes approved by its founders, which may be physical or legal persons. The minimum number of founders is two. The society must submit its registration application to the business registry electronically or on paper.
The law requires the commanding officer of each military unit to provide its members the opportunity to practice their religion. Prison directors must also provide the opportunity for inmates to practice their religious beliefs. The state funds military and prison chaplains, who may belong to any registered religious denomination and must serve individuals of all faiths.
Optional basic religious instruction is available in public and private schools, funded by the state. A school must offer religious studies at the primary or secondary level if at least 12 students request it. Courses offer a general introduction of different faiths. Religious studies instructors may be lay teachers or clergy provided by religious groups. There are no restrictions on private religious schools.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Two religious associations were registered throughout the year, one in Valga, the Rescue Ship Christian Pentecostal Congregation, and one in Narva, the 12 Sacred Apostles Congregation of the Estonian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate.
The government provided 646,000 euros ($681,000) to the Estonian Council of Churches, comprised of 10 Christian churches, including the Lutheran Church and both Orthodox churches. The state did not determine how the funds were allocated; some of these funds were distributed among the member churches and some were used for ecumenical projects and training for members of the boards of council-member congregations to encourage participation in civil society. The government consulted with representatives of the Muslim community and the Council of Churches regarding pending legislation on refugee and immigration issues.
On February 6, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE), which held seven seats in parliament, organized events at cafes to protest against immigration and the “Islamization of Europe.” EKRE participated in Fortress Europe, which united anti-immigration movements (such as PEGIDA) in European countries.
On January 27 the government, in association with the Jewish Community, held an annual memorial event on Holocaust Remembrance Day at Rahumae Jewish Cemetery in Tallinn. The minister of culture delivered a speech on religious tolerance and laid a wreath in memory of victims of the Holocaust. On the same date schools participated in Holocaust commemorative activities throughout the country.
On January 29 the ministry of education and research in cooperation with other organizations sponsored a seminar for history and civics teachers to introduce them to best practices in the classroom for Holocaust commemoration. The event took place in the Museum of Occupations.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.