The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious practices and provides for freedom of religion and worship, provided that “Christian morality and public order” are respected. It recognizes Catholicism as the religion of the majority of citizens but does not designate it as the state religion. It limits the public offices religious ministers and members of religious orders may hold to those related to social assistance, education, and scientific research. It forbids the formation of political parties based on religion. The constitution prohibits discrimination toward public servants based on their religious practices or beliefs.
The constitution grants legal status to religious associations so they may manage and administer their property within the limits prescribed by law. To register, the group must submit to the Ministry of Government (MOG) a power of attorney, charter, names of the board members (if applicable), copy of the internal bylaws (if applicable), and payment of four balboas ($4) for processing. Once the MOG approves the registration, the religious association must then register the MOG’s resolution in the Public Registry. Registered religious associations must apply to the Directorate of Internal Revenue of the Ministry of Economy and Finance in order to receive clearance for duty-free imports. The government may donate government properties to registered religious associations, upon approval by the Legislative Tax Committee and the cabinet. The law states income from religious activities is tax exempt as long as it is collected through such activities as church and burial services and charitable events.
The constitution requires public schools to provide instruction on Catholic teachings. Parents have the right to exempt their children from religious education. The constitution allows for the establishment of private religious schools.
Immigration law grants foreign religious workers temporary missionary worker visas that must be renewed every two years, for up to a total of six years. Catholic and Orthodox Christian priests and nuns are exempt from the renewal requirement and are issued a six-year visa. Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim clergy and other religious workers are also eligible for the special, automatic six-year visa, but must submit extra legal documents with their applications. These additional requirements include a copy of the organization’s bylaws, the MOG-issued registration certificate, and a letter from the organization’s leader in the country certifying the religious worker will be employed at its place of worship. The application fee is 250 balboas ($250) for all religious denominations.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to a Rastafarian leader, the government did not consider Rastafarians a religious organization as the community had chosen not to participate in the registration process. The Ministry of Government previously issued the Rastafarian Alliance of Panama a permit to function as an NGO.
The government continued to rely primarily on Catholic clergy to conduct religious invocations at government events. Many official celebrations included participation of the highest-ranking officials at Catholic masses. During the June Panama Canal expansion ceremony, leaders from five different religious groups delivered invocations. Catholic and Episcopal priests delivered an ecumenical religious invocation at a ceremony marking the conclusion of national judicial reforms. Muslims and Jews continued to serve in the cabinet of President Juan Carlos Varela.
Muslim women, Catholic nuns, and Rastafarians were required to pull back their head covering to show their ears in pictures taken by immigration officials upon their arrival in the country. Civil registry and customs authorities, however, agreed to take the photographs and carry out the searches in private if Rastafarians so requested.
Some non-Catholic religious leaders expressed concern the government gave preferential treatment to Catholic schools when allocating subsidies for salaries and operational expenses for religious schools. According to the Ministry of Education, 24 private schools were allocated approximately 325,000 balboas ($325,000) in subsidies in 2015 and 2016, including Catholic, evangelical Protestant, and Episcopalian schools; the ministry did not provide a proportional breakdown among the religious groups.
The government awarded 12.1 million balboas ($12.1 million) to restore five Catholic Churches and the National Theater located in the San Felipe district, a UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage-designated area. The government also awarded the Evangelical Church of Arraijan approximately 30,000 balboas ($30,000 dollars) to produce religious music.