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, permitting them to manage and administer their property within the limits prescribed by law. If groups decline to register, they are unable to apply for grants or subsidies. To register, the group must submit to the Ministry of Government (MOG) a power of attorney, charter, names of the board members (if applicable), a copy of the internal bylaws (if applicable), and a 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 grant 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 also allows for the establishment of private religious schools. It is illegal to determine enrollment of students in private schools based on religion. Students of a separate faith from their educational institution are allowed to practice their religion freely.
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 additional documentation with their applications. This discrepancy is due to an article in the constitution that allows for all religions to worship freely, with no limitation other than “respect for Christian morality.” 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.
The government did not consider Rastafarians a religious organization because the community had chosen not to register as a religion. Instead, the MOG issued the Rastafarian Alliance of Panama a permit to function as a nongovernmental organization. According to a Rastafarian leader, the group continued to operate under this permit without difficulties.
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. Muslims and Jews continued to serve in senior positions in the government.
The law continued to require Muslim women, Catholic nuns, and Rastafarians 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, continued to allow the taking of photographs and conducting body searches in private if Rastafarians, Muslims, and other individuals wearing religious garments requested to do so. According to a Muslim community leader, the community did not receive any complaints regarding these procedures.
Catholic schools continued to represent the majority of parochial education; non-Catholic religious schools also received equal consideration of government grants. The Ministry of Education reported that in accordance with a decree mandating “fair and equitable allocation of funds to schools,” it had granted government subsidies ranging from 5,000 to 50,000 balboas ($5,000 to $50,000) to small religious and nonreligious private schools, including a Catholic school and an evangelical Protestant school. The Ministry of Education also provided a subsidy of 367,000 balboas ($367,000) to an Anglican school to cover the school’s annual teacher and administrative staff annual payroll. Another evangelical Protestant school reportedly did not receive a subsidy because it had not opened a required bank account.
The government provided 90,000 balboas ($90,000) for social programs conducted by the Catholic-run school Colegio Javier. In February the National Assembly Budget Committee approved the government’s request for additional funds to reconstruct several Catholic facilities in Herrera Province. In May the government assigned 210,359 balboas ($210,359) to build a new Catholic church in Valle Rico, Las Tablas. The funds were allocated from the budget of the Social Assistance Directorate, an office within the Ministry of the Presidency.
In January the National Assembly hosted a ceremony to celebrate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, with the Israeli Ambassador as guest speaker. The event was attended by government representatives and included prayers by the rabbis of the three Panamanian-Jewish congregations. Holocaust survivor Gerta Stern and the Catholic Archbishop of Panama both attended.
Throughout the year, the government coordinated closely with the Catholic Church on preparations for World Youth Day, which the country is scheduled to host in January 2019. Some social media commentators criticized the use of public funds for the religious event, which is cosponsored by Pope Francis and Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew. In August the government’s Technical Secretariat for Social Development hosted members of the Inter-Religious Institute for a private briefing on government programs and achievements related to promoting respect for religious diversity and tolerance.