The constitution provides for the right to choose, practice, and change one’s religion. This right may be subject to “reasonable restrictions” by law in the interests of national security or public order, health, or morals, or protecting the rights of others. Legal protections cover discrimination or persecution by private citizens as well as government officials. The preamble to the constitution describes the country as “an independent State based on Christian principles and Samoan custom and traditions.”
The government does not require religious groups to register, but groups have the option to register as a charitable trust with the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Labor. Registration is free, with a simple application. Becoming a charitable trust entitles groups to receive tax exemptions and legal status. Unregistered religious groups may not formally buy property or pay employees. Religious groups may be established on community land or on land owned by their leader.
The constitution provides that no one can be forced to take religious instruction in a religion other than his or her own, and gives each religious group the right to establish its own schools.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In December the prime minister submitted to parliament an amendment that would add in the constitution’s body that the country is a Christian nation. Parliament took no action as of the end of the year. The proposal for the amendment followed the prime minister’s statement in May that the government would amend the constitution to make Christianity the official religion of the country. Referencing the Middle East and terror attacks, he reportedly said there was a fine line between freedom of religion and extremists and that “No country would want their constitution to include those who believe in religion that allows murderous acts.” According to media reports, he did not name any particular religion. Reportedly, the amendment would not affect the part of the constitution which guarantees freedom of religion.
Chairman of the NCC Reverend Kasiano Leaupepe said the amendment on Christianity as the national religion was not needed because the preamble already said the country was based on Christian principles. (The NCC is comprised of 10 Christian religious groups in the country, encompassing more than 85 percent of the population.). (Laulu Mohammed Daniel Stanley, the head of the Muslim League of Samoa, also opposed the amendment.
Reportedly, matai councils, the traditional governing body of villages, often resisted attempts to introduce new religious groups into their communities on the grounds of “maintaining harmony within the village,” a duty which is prescribed in legislation. Observers continued to report that in many villages throughout the country, leaders forbade individuals to belong to churches outside of the village or to exercise their right not to worship. Villagers in violation of such rules faced fines and/or banishment from the village.
Traditionally, villages have tended to have one primary Christian church. Village chiefs often have chosen the religious denomination of their extended families. Many larger villages have had multiple churches serving different denominations and coexisting peacefully.
The government enforced an education policy making Christian instruction compulsory in public primary schools and optional in public secondary schools. There was no opt-out provision.
Public ceremonies typically began with a Christian prayer.