The constitution states everyone has the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” and “the church shall be separate from the state.” It allows restrictions on the expression of religious beliefs in order to protect public safety, welfare, morals, the democratic structure of the state, and others’ rights. The law gives eight “traditional” religious groups – Lutherans, Catholics, Latvian Orthodox Christians, Old Believers, Baptists, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jews – some rights and privileges not given to other religious groups, including the right to teach religion courses in public schools and the right to officiate at marriages without obtaining a civil marriage license from the MOJ. These eight groups are also the only religious groups represented on the government’s Ecclesiastical Council, an advisory body established by law and chaired by the prime minister that meets on an ad hoc basis to comment and provide recommendations on religious issues. These recommendations do not carry the force of law.
Separate laws define relations between the state and each of these eight groups. The rights and activities of other religious groups are covered by one law on religious organizations.
Although the government does not require religious groups to register, the law accords registered religious groups a number of rights and privileges, including legal status to own property and conduct financial transactions, eligibility to apply for funds for religious building restoration, and tax deductions for donors. Registration also allows religious groups to perform religious activities in hospitals, prisons, and military units and to hold services in public places such as parks or public squares with the agreement of the local government. The law accords the same rights and privileges to the eight traditional religious groups, which it treats as already registered.
Unregistered groups do not possess legal status and may not own property, conduct financial transactions, or receive tax-free donations. They may not perform religious activities in hospitals, prisons, or military units, and generally may not hold worship services in public places without special permission. The law stipulates fines if an unregistered group carries out any of these activities.
The law stipulates that, in order to register as a congregation, a religious group must have at least 20 members aged 18 or older. Individuals with temporary residency status, such as asylum seekers and foreign diplomatic staff, may count as members for the purpose of registration only during the authorized period of their residency permits. To apply, religious groups must submit statutes stipulating their aims and tasks; a list of all group members (full name, identification number, and signature); the names of the persons who will represent the religious organization; minutes of the meeting founding the group; confirmation that members voted on and approved the statutes; and a list of members of the audit committee (full name, identification number, and title). The audit committee is responsible for preparing financial reports on the group and ensuring it adheres to its statutes. The MOJ determines whether to register a religious group as a congregation. The ministry may deny an application if it deems registration would threaten human rights, the democratic structure of the state, public safety, welfare, or morals. Groups denied registration may appeal the decision in court.
Ten or more congregations – totaling at least 200 members – of the same faith or denomination, each with permanent registration status, may form a religious association or church. Groups with religious association status, or status as a private society or foundation, may establish theological schools and monasteries. The law does not permit simultaneous registration of more than one religious association of a single faith or denomination, or of more than one religious group with the same or similar name. For example, the law prevents any association other than the Latvian Orthodox Church from registering with the word “orthodox” in its name. Other Orthodox groups, such as Old Believers, are registered as separate religious associations.
In April the Constitutional Court ruled that the law requiring religious groups to reregister every year if they had been registered in the country for fewer than 10 years was unconstitutional.
According to the law, all traditional and registered religious organizations are required to submit an annual report to the MOJ by March 1 regarding their activities and goals. They must also provide other data, including congregation size, number of clergy, number of weddings and other ceremonies performed, and details of group governance and financial status.
The law criminalizes hate speech and the incitement of hatred on the basis of religious affiliation but requires legal proof, determined at trial, of substantial harm for conviction. Penalties range from community service to up to 10 years of imprisonment. Committing a crime for religious reasons may also be considered an aggravating factor at trial.
The government funds required religion and ethics classes in public schools in first through third grade. The school must receive the approval of the parents of at least 10 students in order to hold religion classes in any of the eight traditional groups; if such approval is not obtained or if they prefer not to enroll in religion classes, students take courses on general ethics. The Center for Educational Content at the Ministry of Education must review the content of the classes to verify they do not violate freedom of conscience. Starting in fourth grade, religious subjects are incorporated into elective ethics and social science classes. If there is demand, schools are permitted to teach classes on the history of religion. Students at state-supported national minority schools may attend classes on a voluntary basis on the religion “characteristic of the national minority.” Other nontraditional religious groups without their own state-supported minority schools may provide religious education only in private schools. Religion courses in public schools range from doctrinal instruction by church-approved government-certified instructors (usually at the lower grades), to nondenominational Christian teachings or overviews of major world religions by certified teachers who are proposed by a religious group, and approved by the Ministry of Education (usually at higher grades).
The law establishes an independent ombudsman’s office for human rights. Its mandate includes helping to resolve cases of religious discrimination through collaboration with authorities. While it does not have enforcement powers, it can issue recommendations to specific authorities. Parliament appoints the ombudsman.
The law stipulates foreign missionaries may be issued a residency permit, hold meetings, and proselytize only if a registered domestic religious group invites them to conduct such activities. Visa regulations require foreign religious workers to present letters of invitation, typically from a religious organization, and either an ordination certificate or evidence of religious education that corresponds to a local bachelor’s degree in theology. Religious workers from EU or Schengen countries do not require visas.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The MOJ approved the applications of three religious groups that applied to register for the first time: evangelical Christian Church Kingdom of God, spiritual center Rebirth, and evangelical Christian Church Grace of Christ.
Pursuant to the Constitutional Court’s ruling, effective in April, religious groups registered in the country for fewer than 10 years no longer had to register every year. In December parliament amended the law on religious organizations to bring it into compliance with the Constitutional Court’s ruling.
The government again did not take any steps to restitute property in accordance with the 2009 Terezin Declaration, which called for measures to provide assistance, redress, and remembrance for victims of Nazi persecution. There continued to be differing views among the government and Jewish community groups about the number of properties that remained to be restituted. Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics told media in May restitution of Jewish property remained on the agenda and would be addressed in the next parliament, elected in October.
According to a report on the country issued in 2018 by the NGO National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (NCSEJ), the government had made significant progress in recognizing Jewish issues and commemorating the Holocaust, adding that problems remained with regard to property restitution and vandalism of Jewish sites.
Authorities continued to monitor Muslim activities according to the annual report of the security police. In November Islamic Cultural Centre in Latvia (ICCL) leader Janis Hamza Lucins stated privately he had had no negative interaction with the security police during the year and was unaware of any actual or threatened violence against the Muslim community by government actors or private individuals during the same period. In October Muslim community leader Zufars Zainullins said privately he did not view government monitoring of Muslims to be discriminatory or a violation of their rights.
The new prayer center of the ICCL remained unopened. ICCL leader Lucins stated the ICCL was not currently focused on opening the new prayer center and had no timeline for opening the facility. Lucins and Muslim community leader Zainullins said the ICCL’s unopened status did not involve anti-Muslim animus on the part of the government.
President Raimonds Vejonis and other senior government officials, including Speaker of the Parliament Inara Murniece, Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis, and Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, attended or spoke at Holocaust memorial events, including International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Latvian Holocaust Memorial Day, and the Rumbula Forest Massacre Memorial. In July at a commemoration of the burning in 1941 of the Great Choral Synagogue together with those inside, Murniece said, “Thousands of lives were wiped out … it was hell on earth,” adding that local henchmen were also involved in the mass executions that took place in the country during WWII. In his speech at the same event, President Vejonis said Jews were an integral part of the country and that “intolerance to those who are different find[s] a fertile soil in society and public space. Those who remember the horrible events of the past are today’s hope.”
On the July 4 Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust, officials unveiled a memorial in Riga dedicated to Hungarian Jewish women who were deported to labor and concentration camps in Latvia during the 1944 Nazi occupation, where they perished or were killed.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.