The constitution stipulates full freedom of conscience and religious worship, subject to restrictions in the interests of public safety, order, morality, or health, or protection of the rights and freedoms of others. It prohibits discriminatory treatment on the basis of creed. The constitution establishes Catholicism as the state religion and declares the Catholic Church has “the duty and the right to teach which principles are right and which are wrong.”
In July through an amendment to the criminal code, the government updated provisions on crimes against religion – including the decriminalization of the vilification of religion – and expanded the scope of the crime of incitement to racial hatred to include incitement of religious hatred. Those convicted of incitement to religious hatred are liable to imprisonment for a term of six to 18 months.
The government does not require religious groups to be registered or licensed. A religious group has the option of registering as a voluntary organization with the office of the commissioner for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). To qualify, the organization must be nonprofit, autonomous, and voluntary; provide a resolution letter signed by all its committee or board members requesting registration; provide its authenticated annual accounts and annual report; and pay a 40-euro ($42) registration fee. The law does not provide registered groups with tax reductions or exemptions, but allows them to make collections without obtaining any further authorization. It also allows them to receive grants, sponsorships, and financial aid from the government and the Voluntary Organizations Fund, an entity financed through the government and the European Union. The fund, whose governing council is appointed by the minister of education and made up of representatives from voluntary organizations and a government representative, supports enrolled voluntary organizations.
Religious groups not registered as voluntary organizations with the office of the commissioner for nongovernmental organizations do not receive funding from the government or the Voluntary Organizations Fund and require government approval – issued by the Commissioner of Police – to collect contributions from the public, but otherwise have the same legal rights as registered groups.
The criminal code prohibits individuals from wearing “masks or disguises” in public, unless explicitly allowed by law; there is no specific reference – or exception – to coverings worn for religious reasons.
All religious groups may own property, including buildings. Property used for a particular purpose including religious worship, must obtain a permit for that purpose from the Planning Authority. All religious groups may organize and run private religious schools; their religious leaders may perform marriages and other functions.
The constitution and law make Catholic education, which does not have to be taught by Catholic teachers, compulsory in public schools but allows students, with parental consent if the student is under the age of 16, to opt out of these classes and instead take an ethics course if one is available. If a school does not offer an ethics course, students may still opt out of the religion class.
Enrollment in private religious schools is permitted. The law does not regulate religious education in private schools. The law does not allow homeschooling for religious or other reasons except for physical or mental infirmity.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Parliament’s amendments to the criminal code decriminalizing the vilification of religion generated considerable controversy. An academic from the University of Malta and other critics stated the changes would make it harder to prosecute persons for inciting religious hatred. Justice Minister Owen Bonnici stated, “In a democratic country, people should be free to make fun of religions, while not inciting hatred.” On July 12, commenting on the change in the law, Catholic Archbishop Charles Scicluna, tweeted, “Demeaning God and man indeed go hand in hand. A sad day for Malta. Lord forgive them: they do not know what they do.”
The government did not enforce the legal ban on face coverings or disguises.
In January government authorities provided temporary premises “until a permanent solution was found” to a Muslim community that did not use the mosque in Paola, and that had been praying publicly after they experienced problems in obtaining permits for their makeshift prayer rooms. According to local media reports, the Planning Authority denied permits to the community to convert the use of a residence, a garage, and a shop in various parts of the country to be used as prayer rooms. By year’s end, there were no reports the Planning Authority had issued any permits for prayer rooms to the Muslim community.
The government continued to implement a pilot program to offer ethics education in state schools as an alternative to the 6 percent of students who reportedly did not attend Catholic religious classes. In December 2015, 40 teachers graduated from a specialized course to prepare them to teach the ethics classes. A total of 419 primary school students took ethics education classes during the 2015-16 school year. During the 2016-17 school year, the Ministry of Education extended the pilot project to nine more schools, expanding the program to a total of 1,073 students, or approximately three percent of all students.
In July the Ministry of Education launched a public consultation process on proposed changes to the education law, including the introduction of the option of homeschooling for parents. Public consultations ended in October.
In June the Forum for Equal Opportunities of the opposition Nationalist Party (PN) commemorated Ramadan with the Muslim community. At the event, PN Deputy Leader Beppe Fenech Adami discussed the importance of dialogue in the community and encouraged the social inclusion of all sectors in society.