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.”
The government does not require religious groups to be registered. A religious group has the option to register as a voluntary organization with the Office of the Commissioner for Voluntary Organizations. To qualify for registration, 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 ($48) 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 minister of education appoints the governing council of the fund, which comprises representatives from voluntary organizations and a government official and supports enrolled voluntary organizations.
Religious groups not registered as voluntary organizations with the Office of the Commissioner for Voluntary Organizations do not receive funding from the government or the Voluntary Organizations Fund and require approval from the Commissioner of Police to collect contributions from the public. Approval is not required for collections from members or congregants. Groups that do not register as voluntary organizations 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. Violations are subject to a reprimand, fine, or jail sentence.
All religious groups may own property, including buildings. Groups using property 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, and their religious leaders may perform marriages and other functions.
The constitution and law make Catholic education compulsory in public schools, although non-Catholic teachers may teach the course. Students, with parental consent if the student is under the age of 16, may 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.
Students may enroll in private religious schools. 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 law allows criticism of religious groups but prohibits incitement of religious hatred; violators are subject to imprisonment for a term of six to 18 months.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government continued its practice of not enforcing the legal ban on face coverings or disguises, including those worn for religious purposes.
During a congress in March of the European People’s Party (EPP) – a coalition of parties represented in the European Parliament – held in the town of St. Julian’s, members adopted a resolution that included a call for a ban on face veils, such as burqas and niqabs, in public places. Simon Busuttil, then-leader of the opposition Nationalist Party (PN, affiliated with the EPP), told The Malta Independent on Sunday newspaper in April that he endorsed the EPP’s resolution and favored banning face veils in public spaces. Another PN representative, Member of Parliament Clyde Puli, posted the Malta Independent article, citing Busuttil’s endorsement of a face veil ban on his Facebook page, with the comment, “Ban the Burqa.”
The Ministry of Education continued to expand 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. During the 2016-17 school year, 1,073 primary and secondary level students, approximately 3 percent of all students, enrolled in the ethics classes, compared with 419 students in the previous year.
The government advanced plans to introduce the voluntary study of Islamic religious education in an after-school program in a number of state primary- and secondary-level schools, although the government had yet to release a specific timeline for the program’s implementation. Discussions were also underway, although not as well developed, to explore similar programs for other religious groups.
The discussions on after-school Islamic education began when Mohammed el-Sadi, the Imam of the Mariam Al-Batool Mosque, the country’s leading mosque in Paola, announced in March plans to close the Islamic Center’s Mariam Al-Batool Secondary School, citing financial reasons. El-Sadi appealed to the government to provide Islamic religious instruction to approximately 60 Muslim students who would have to transfer to state schools following the school’s closure. Minister of Education Evarist Bartolo responded there should be no problem with Muslim children receiving Islamic religious teaching, as long as it was accredited and treated equally with other subjects, including requiring students enrolled in such classes to take O level exams in Islamic studies.