The constitution, laws, and executive decrees prohibit discrimination based on religious practices and provide for freedom of religion and worship, provided that “Christian morality and public order” are respected. The constitution 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 may not apply for grants or subsidies. To register, a 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 four balboa ($4) processing fee. Once the MOG approves the registration, the religious association must 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 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 may exempt their children from religious education. The constitution also allows for the establishment of private religious schools. It is illegal to base enrollment of students in private schools on religion. Students of a faith separate from their educational institution are allowed to practice their religion freely.
Immigration law grants foreign religious workers temporary missionary worker visas they must renew every two years, for up to a total of six years. Catholic and Orthodox Christian priests and nuns are exempt from the two-year renewal requirement and issued six-year visas because of the constitutional provision allowing all religions to worship freely, with no limitation other than “respect for Christian morality.” Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim clergy, as well as other religious workers, are also eligible for the special six-year visa; however, they must submit additional documentation with their applications. 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 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 of body searches in private if requested to do so. According to the Ombudsman’s Office and a leader of the Muslim community, there were no complaints regarding these procedures.
In August members of the indigenous Guna community protested outside the Electoral Tribunal for alleged discrimination involving an Ibeorgun woman. According to La Estrella newspaper, government officials had required that she remove her ceremonial olasu u orasu, or religious nose piercing, for a national identification photograph. After the incident, the Electoral Tribunal instructed regional offices they could not force a citizen to remove the piercing, according to Law 20 of June 2000, which protects the right to traditional garb.
In March, upon the request of the Sunni Muslim Religious Association of Panama, the Ministry of Education issued a resolution allowing girls attending public schools in the provinces of Panama City and Herrera to wear hijabs.
Catholic schools continued to represent the majority of parochial educational institutions. According to a Ministry of Education official, non-Catholic religious schools received equal consideration regarding government grants; however, privately some non-Catholic groups continued to state the government provided preferential distribution of subsidies to small Catholic-run private schools for salaries and operating expenses. These non-Catholic groups also pointed to the government’s continued support for the January 2019 World Youth Day event as a sign of preference. 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-$50,000) to small religious and nonreligious private schools, including a Panama City-based Catholic school and an evangelical Protestant school. The Ministry of Education also provided a subsidy of 367,000 balboas ($367,000) to an Episcopalian (Anglican) school to cover the school’s annual teacher and administrative staff payroll. 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 allocated 210,359 balboas ($210,000) to build a new Catholic church in Valle Rico, Las Tablas. The funds came from the budget of the Social Assistance Directorate, an office within the Ministry of the Presidency.
Throughout the year, the government continued to coordinate closely with the Vatican on preparations for hosting World Youth Day in January 2019. In August the government sponsored 105 Catholic youth to take language courses at the University of Panama to serve as interpreters during World Youth Day. Local Catholic organizers continued to invite members of other religious denominations to participate; however, some social media commentators criticized the use of public funds for the religious event. The posting of World Youth Day banners at public schools throughout the country was commonplace. The National Migration Service announced it would waive a requirement that tourists attending the event possess $500 in funds to apply for a visa if they applied as a “religious pilgrim.”
The government continued to rely primarily on Catholic clergy to conduct religious invocations at government events, including National Assembly openings and reconvenings. Many official celebrations included participation of the highest-ranking officials at Catholic masses, including the Te Deum on November 3. Muslims and Jews continued to serve in senior positions in the government, such as ambassador to Spain (Jewish) and minister counselor of the Ministry of the Presidency (Muslim).