The constitution provides for freedom of thought and religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion or belief either alone or in community with others, both in public and in private, and to manifest and propagate one’s religion or belief in worship. It prohibits discrimination based on belief. The constitution provides that rights and freedoms are protected to the extent they do not “prejudice the rights and freedoms of others.”
A law criminalizing Obeah and Myalism, religious practices with West African influences, remains in effect. Potential punishment for practicing Obeah and Myalism includes imprisonment of up to 12 months. Authorities have rarely enforced the law since the country became independent in 1962.
Registration with the government is not mandatory for religious groups, but registered groups obtain incorporated group status and gain benefits, including the ability to hold land, to enter into legal disputes as an organization, and for clergy to visit members in prison. Groups may seek incorporated status by applying to the Companies Office, an executive agency. The Companies Office application comprises a standard form and a fee of 2,500 Jamaican dollars ($20). NGOs register via the same form and fee structure to gain incorporated status. Groups incorporated through this process must subsequently submit annual reports and financial statements to the Companies Office.
Alternatively groups may petition the parliament to be incorporated by parliamentary act. Such groups receive similar benefits to those incorporating through the Companies Office, but parliament does not require annual reports or regulate the organizations it incorporates.
Regardless of incorporation status, religious groups seeking tax-exempt transactions must register as charities. To be considered a charity, an organization must apply to the Cooperatives and Friendly Societies Department in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture, and Fisheries. Once registered, groups must submit their registration to the customs agency in the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service or apply to the tax administration to be considered for tax-free status.
The constitution states religious groups have the right to provide religious instruction to members of their communities. Immunizations are mandatory for all children attending both public and private schools. The law requires school administrators to adhere to several practices regarding the teaching of religion. No individual may be required to receive religious instruction or participate in religious observances contrary to his or her beliefs. The public school curriculum includes nondenominational religious education, which focuses on the historical role of religion in society and philosophical thought and includes group visits to Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu houses of worship. Students may not opt out of religious education; however, religious devotion or practice during school hours is optional.
Churches operate a number of private schools. Churches also run some public schools; they receive funding from the government and must abide by Ministry of Education, Youth, and Information rules. Regulations mandate that religious schools receiving public funding must admit students of all faiths. Religious schools are not subject to any special restrictions; they do not receive special treatment from the government based on their religious or denominational affiliation. Most religious schools are affiliated with Catholic or Protestant churches; the Islamic Council of Jamaica runs two schools.
Foreign religious workers traveling to the country to perform religious work, as is the case with all foreign visitors, require an entry visa. The entry visa may be obtained upon arrival or in advance, depending on the nationality of the traveler and the length of stay. Religious workers, regardless of affiliation, who visit the country to work with a religious organization, require a work permit from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On August 28, the Supreme Court ordered that a five-year-old-child with dreadlocks be allowed to attend school until the court could hear the full constitutional challenge. The girl was accepted to Kensington Primary, a public school in a suburb of Kingston, but administrators told her parents that she would have to cut her dreadlocks or find another school. The case garnered much attention from various advocacy groups, all of which supported the girl. Religious leaders said the case symbolically represented Rastafarianism because wearing dreadlocks was Rastafarian custom, and prohibiting dreadlocks was violating Rastafarians’ right to practice their religion. Although the girl did not self-identify as Rastafarian, media outlets noted the case for its wider context of cultural identity and religious expression. Legal practitioners stated that the court’s decision on this matter could have ramifications for Rastafarians seeking employment or government services as well.
Rastafarians continued to state their religious opposition to immunization, a requirement for children to register and attend school and part of the government’s stated campaign to reduce the resurgence of many communicable diseases in the country. According to Rastafarian sources, however, most Rastafarian students could obtain a doctor’s note excusing them from the required immunizations. Rastafarians also stated discrimination against Rastafarian children at schools was very rare and generally occurred only in rural areas.
The government undertook an analysis of potential discrimination in faith-affiliated private schools, attended by approximately 10 percent of students at the secondary and primary levels. The overwhelming majority of these schools are Christian-based, and 35 percent received some form of public funding through direct subsidies, stipends for food, or discounted textbooks.
A member of the Jamaica Council for Interfaith Fellowship said conflicts of interest arose when public policy and religious preferences did not align. In one report a Christian-affiliated secondary school asked a student to withdraw after becoming pregnant. The council member said civil society and senior educational officials then intervened on the stated grounds that the act was illegal. The student was subsequently reinstated.
From October 8 through October 15, the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission held its annual National Heritage Week, coordinating with the Committee for the Promotion of National Religious Services on a national interfaith thanksgiving service. Similar events occurred throughout the country at the parish (sub-county) level during the year.
The government routinely conducted outreach to religious minorities, including Muslims, Jews, and Rastafarians, as well as Baha’i, Buddhist, and Hindu groups, with the stated goal of fostering tolerance and acceptance. Outreach included participating in the annual National Heritage Week to celebrate the country’s religious tolerance and diversity.