The constitution provides for freedom of religion and states, “the State supports no religion.” The penal code prohibits discrimination based on religion.
The constitution accords the Catholic Church the right to ownership of all its churches built wholly or partly with state funding, with the exception of chapels dedicated for use by asylums, hospitals, prisons, or other public establishments.
Religious groups are entitled to property tax exemptions only for their houses of worship. To receive such exemptions, a religious group must register as a nonprofit with the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) and present a dossier with the organization’s structure and objectives. The ministry examines the dossier and determines if the religious group is eligible to receive a tax exemption. The MEC routinely registers groups submitting the required paperwork. If approved, the group may request a property tax exemption from the taxing authority, usually the municipal government.
Each local government regulates the use of its public land for burials. Many departments allow the services and rites of all religions in their public cemeteries.
The National Institute of Human Rights, an autonomous branch of the parliament, and the MEC’s CHRXD enforce government compliance with antidiscrimination laws. Both organizations receive complaints of discrimination, conduct investigations, and issue rulings on whether discrimination occurred. The ruling includes a recommendation on whether the case should receive a judicial or administrative hearing. Only the courts or the Ministry of Labor may sanction or fine for discrimination. The National Institute of Human Rights and the CHRXD provide free legal services to complainants.
In 2014 the corrections authority passed a protocol on the rights and obligations of inmates regarding religious activities in prison. The protocol regulates religious issues in prisons, including standardizing access for religious officials and religious meeting spaces. Several prisons in the country have a dedicated space for religious practices.
The constitution prohibits religious instruction in public schools. Public schools close on some Christian holidays, although, in deference to its secular nature, the government does not officially refer to holidays by their Christian names. Students belonging to non-Christian or minority religious groups may be absent from school on their religious holidays without penalty. Private schools run by religious organizations may decide which religious holidays to observe.
In order for religious workers to work in the country, they must provide certification from their church to confirm the identity of an applicant and to guarantee financial support. According to regulations, the state must enforce these standards equitably across all religious groups.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The CHRXD 2016-17 report covering incidents of discrimination included21 formal complaints of discrimination. Of those complaints, 1.8 percent concerned religious discrimination. Of the 44.6 percent that were racial discrimination cases, 12 percent targeted Jews. The CHRXD and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs worked to develop and prepare the “System for the Monitoring of Recommendations,” a computer tool to monitor and report progress related to issues of discrimination. They expected to launch the system in 2018.
In March the Uruguayan Central Jewish Committee (CCIU) organized an academic event titled “Anti-discrimination Law – Hate Crimes” to mark the one year anniversary of the killing of Jewish businessman David Fremd by a Muslim convert. In October 2016 a court ruled the killer, Carlos Peralta, should be sent to a psychiatric center rather than prison. The event was sponsored by the Supreme Court, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Latin American Jewish Congress and was supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Minister Nin Novoa, who participated in the event.
The government organized workshops throughout the year to raise awareness of societal discrimination and to promote tolerance. Parliament established March 19 as the date to commemorate secularism in the country. An opposition party representative promoted this legislative initiative with the stated purpose of reinforcing secularism as the base of a “respectful coexistence” in society.
CHRXD sources said the government was not invited to any civil society-organized interfaith dialogues during the year. Religious leaders also noted that while the national government seemed to make little effort to convene an interfaith dialogue, local government officials in Montevideo provided support to interfaith events.
The country’s commitment to secularism at times continued to generate tensions within the Catholic and evangelical Christian communities, who said government stances on sex education, gender, and abortion threatened their rights to practice their religion. Differing interpretations of the term “secularism” continued to lead to disagreements on the state’s role in enforcing the country’s secularism laws. In July the Secondary Education Council, a government agency within the National Public Education Administration, suspended the director of a public high school in the Department of Salto for allowing a workshop on sexuality and reproduction that included models of human fetuses and booklets with religious images. The suspension was purportedly due to the director’s violation of secularism laws after religious materials were allowed into the classroom as part of the presentation. Afterward, a legislator filed a complaint in parliament against the director’s suspension, stating the suspension was a violation of the same laws enforcing secularism. The complaint was pending at year’s end. The incident engendered considerable nationwide controversy and debate about secularism in the country.
Minority religious groups such as Bahais, Umbandists, Buddhists, and Hindus reported no cases of government-based discrimination or intolerance. They continued, however, to state the government demonstrated more interest in other religious groups, particularly Christian and Jewish groups, and there were few to no opportunities for direct dialogue with the government on religious freedom during the year.
The Montevideo city authorities’ denial in May of the Archbishop of Montevideo’s request to install a statue of the Virgin Mary on a major public route engendered controversy between representatives of the Catholic Church and some politicians. A representative of the Catholic Church said the decision had generated tensions between local Catholics and the government, especially because in the past the local government had allowed the placement of other statues, including one of Confucius and one of the Umbandist deity Iemanya, along the same stretch of road.
The Muslim community continued to request space from the government in a public cemetery in Montevideo to practice its burial rites. The Egyptian Islamic Center of Uruguay formally requested a grant of land in a state cemetery, leading to debate among several political leaders in Montevideo. Some leaders said as a minority group, the Muslims should have government support to use public space for a cemetery; others opposed the idea, citing the local government’s rejection of a request to place a statue of the Virgin Mary on public land, in addition to the potential risks of creating a precedent. The request was pending at year’s end.
As in previous years, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported activities to commemorate the Holocaust. The parliament organized a special session in January to honor Holocaust victims. Also in January, Minister of Education and Culture Maria Munoz issued a nationally broadcast message commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In her speech, she announced the naming of a Montevideo public high school after Warsaw Ghetto Uprising leader Mordechai Anielewicz. The “Shoa Project,” an online educational tool on the Holocaust, launched a contest during the year for high school teachers to raise awareness of Holocaust resistance fighters.
In October Defense Minister Jorge Menendez met with representatives of the Uruguay Jewish Central Committee and the country’s four main political parties to decide how to dispose of an 800-pound bronze Nazi eagle and swastika from a German World War II cruiser scuttled in Montevideo harbor following the 1939 Battle of Rio Plata. While a representative of the governing Broad Front coalition suggested displaying the piece in a future museum dedicated to the battle, CCIU President Israel Buszkaniec expressed concern the piece could attract neo-Nazis to the country and create a “Nazi sanctuary.” At year’s end no decision about the piece’s disposition was made.
In December the government awarded a prize to a public school and its staff in Maldonado Department in recognition of their work in raising awareness of the negative consequences of discrimination in all its forms, including religious discrimination.