The constitution provides the individual the right to “freedom of conscience, thought and religion and the practice of his religion and beliefs, including freedom to manifest and propagate his religion and beliefs” except where that practice infringes on another person’s rights or where it violates a public interest in “defence, public safety, public order, public welfare, public health, the protection of children and persons under disability, or the development of under-privileged or less advanced groups or areas.” The predominance of Christianity is recognized in the preamble of the constitution, which refers to “our noble traditions and the Christian principles that are ours.” There is, however, no state religion.
Religious groups are required to register with the government in order to hold a bank account, own properties in the religious group’s name, have limited individual liability, and apply to the Internal Revenue Commission for exemption on income tax and to the Department of Treasury for exemption of import duty. In order to register, groups must provide documentation including a list of board or executive committee members and a constitution. There were no reports of groups being denied registration.
Foreign missionary groups are permitted to proselytize and engage in other missionary activities. Religious workers receive a three-year special exemption visa from the government. Applications for the visa require a sponsor letter from a religious group in the country, an approved work permit from the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, and 100 Kina ($32) fee, which is less than for other visa categories. The government routinely approved religious worker applications.
The country is a party in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In June the Constitutional Review Commission shelved a parliamentary proposal to “prohibit the worship of non-Christian faiths” on the grounds that the proposed ban would be a violation of religious freedom. The proposal never moved forward to parliament as a bill and a nationwide consultation did not take place as previously planned.
In June the Supreme Court ordered the speaker of parliament to re-install indigenous cultural artifacts that he had ordered removed from the parliament house in 2013. The speaker had removed or in many cases destroyed these artifacts, saying they were demonic and “ungodly images and idols.” His plan to replace them with Christian symbols was never implemented. The plaintiffs in the case were former Prime Minister and current Member of Parliament Sir Michael Somare and the director of the National Museum. Many Christian groups supported of the court’s decision, saying that the speaker’s actions were divisive. When delivering the ruling, Justice David Canning said that the removal of the artifacts infringed on the constitutionally-guaranteed right of individuals to practice any religion of their choice. He said that the speaker’s actions were an attempt to impose his religious beliefs on others.
The King James Bible that was purchased in the United States in 2015 continued to be on display in parliament. The purchase was criticized because the trip was government funded. Parliament sessions and most official government meetings began and ended with Christian prayers.
Churches continued to operate approximately half of schools and health services in the country, and the government provided financial support for these institutions. The government subsidized their operation on a per-pupil or per-patient basis. In addition, the government continued to pay the salary and provide benefits for the majority of teachers and health staff (generally members of the civil service) who worked at these church-administered institutions, as it did for teachers and health staff of national institutions. Services were provided to the general population irrespective of their religious beliefs and operations were not religious in nature. The education and health sectors continued to rely heavily on church-run institutions.
Many faith-based organizations complained about government funding cuts to education and health services they provided, but the minister for national planning stated that the cuts were implemented equitably and not directed against religiously based organizations.
The Department of Education continued to set aside one hour per week for religious instruction in public schools. This instruction was not compulsory legally but was attended by almost all students. Representatives of Christian churches taught the lessons, and students attended the class operated by the church of their parents’ choice. Children whose parents did not wish them to attend the classes were excused. Members of non-Christian groups used family and group gatherings before and after school for religious lessons.