The constitution provides for the right to choose, practice, and change one’s religion. This right may be subject to “reasonable restrictions” by law in the interests of national security or public order, health, or morals, or protecting the rights of others. Legal protections cover discrimination or persecution by private citizens as well as government officials. The preamble to the constitution describes the country as “an independent State based on Christian principles and Samoan custom and traditions.” In 2017, the parliament added the following clause to the first article of the constitution: “Samoa is a Christian nation founded on God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
The government does not require religious groups to register, but groups have the option to register as a charitable trust with the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Labor. Registration is free, with a simple application. Becoming a charitable trust entitles groups to receive tax exemptions and legal status. Unregistered religious groups may not formally buy property or pay employees. Religious groups may be established on community land or on land owned by their leader.
The constitution provides that no one may be forced to take religious instruction in a religion other than his or her own, and gives each religious group the right to establish its own schools. The government enforces an education policy making Christian instruction compulsory in public primary schools and optional in public secondary schools. There is no opt-out provision.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Reportedly, matai councils, the traditional governing body of villages, frequently continued to resist attempts to introduce new religious groups into their communities on the ground of “maintaining harmony within the village” – a duty prescribed in legislation. Observers continued to report that in many villages throughout the country, leaders forbade individuals to belong to churches outside of the village or to exercise their right not to worship. Villagers in violation of such rules faced fines, banishment from the village, or both.
Traditionally, villages have tended to have one primary Christian church. Village chiefs often have chosen the religious denomination of their extended families. Many larger villages have had multiple churches serving different denominations and coexisting peacefully.
Ten or more chaplains continued to be available to prisoners on a rotational basis, covering the majority of Christian denominations in the country.
An amended income tax law, passed in 2017 and including the taxing of ministers of religion, became effective January 1. The Christian Congregational Church refused to abide by this law. The government was reportedly seeking to collect unpaid taxes from personal bank accounts and assets of pastors. In June, however, parliament adopted a new bill that amended the taxation of pastors to exempt income they receive as donations from funerals, weddings, and other traditional occasions; nonetheless, pastors continued to oppose the tax. The Christian Congregational Church reportedly approved of the change. Media reported, as of November, authorities charged eight pastors of the Christian Congregational Church for not filing their tax returns. The minister of revenue subsequently charged additional pastors, making a total of at least 16 by the end of the year, and said, “We have given church ministers eleven months, and those who continue to defy the law will face the consequences.” The cases of all the pastors were adjourned until February 2019.
According to media, the report of the National Inquiry into Domestic Violence released during the year placed some blame on churches for their lack of effort to curb such incidents. According to press reports, in December at a forum to discuss the report, the chairman of the Samoan National Council of Churches said increasing domestic violence was a result of individuals violating God’s law and called for the government to work with the churches to formulate a national day of repentance.
Public ceremonies typically began with a Christian prayer. The prime minister, while discussing family violence, said citizens should “demonstrate [their] dedication to the Fa’asamoa [the ways of Samoa] and Christian values upon which this country [was] founded.”