The constitution provides for freedom of religion and states, “The State does not support any particular 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 previous 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 organization 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 local government.
During the year, the government transitioned from an inquisitorial system of justice to an accusatory justice system. According to the government, the change aimed to address inefficiency, opacity, and the overuse of pretrial detentions, and to establish a more fair and transparent judicial system that provides greater advocacy to victims. Of the approximately 8,300 cases processed from the switch to the accusatory system through August, 79 percent went through alternative dispute resolution processes. The new criminal procedure code was reformed through additional legislation that amplified police discretion in the first moments of detention and in the investigations phase and also suspended precautionary measures.
Each local government regulates the use of its public land for burials. Many departments (equivalent to states) allow the services and rites of all religions in their public cemeteries.
The INDDHH, 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. These rulings include a recommendation on whether cases should receive a judicial or administrative hearing. Only the courts or the Ministry of Labor may sanction or fine for discrimination. The INDDHH and the CHRXD provide free legal services to complainants.
A correctional authority 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. In deference to its secular nature, the government does not 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.
For religious workers to work in the country, they must provide certification from their church to confirm the identity of the 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 report covering incidents of discrimination during the year included one complaint relating to freedom of conscience and religion; in 2017 there was also one complaint. The INDDHH reported two incidents of discrimination on religious grounds in its 2017 report; there was one complaint the previous year. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs managed the System for the Monitoring of Recommendations, an interagency, computer-based tool to monitor and report on human rights issues, including discrimination based on religion.
A judge sentenced four gasoline station employees working in Montevideo to four to six months of probation for physically and psychologically attacking a colleague with learning disabilities in June on religious and racial grounds. The individuals physically beat the victim while his hands were tied and at one point positioned him in a crucifixion pose. Capturing the event on video, his attackers mocked his religion, sang religious songs to him, and stuck tape to his forehead in the form of a cross. His attackers also said “this is how we treat black people in Uruguay.” Civil society organizations criticized the sentence as being too lenient for the crime. The four individuals were fired and charged with aggravated violence and hate crimes after they confessed in an abbreviated trial under the country’s new accusatory system. The station owner filed the complaint after he saw viral footage of the attack on social media.
In January media reported the owner of a youth hostel denied two young Jewish travelers from Israel entry into his hostel in Barra de Valizas, Rocha Department. The hostel owner said they were “not welcome in his home” because he was “opposed to the political situation” in Israel. The Central Israeli Committee of Uruguay immediately issued a statement condemning the incident as an anti-Semitic act and calling for sanctions. The Ministry of Tourism issued a statement saying the incident contravened the country’s reputation as a country open to receiving individuals from around the world and referred the report to the interagency antidiscrimination committee. The committee acknowledged the case as a discriminatory act. A legislator filed a report with the Prosecutor General’s Office branch in Rocha Department to open an investigation. The governor of Rocha said the hostel was issued a demolition notice since it was not registered and did not have the proper authorizations. The Prosecutor General’s Office said the incident was an isolated case and was due to the tourists’ national origin, not their religion. The Central Israeli Committee, however, responded that it was a case of discrimination based on both nationality and religion.
Government officials made several public statements and wore attire that some Catholic leaders considered to be disparaging of their beliefs and of the practices of the Catholic Church. In July a local government official in Montevideo tweeted a message to promote the use of protection against HIV/AIDS, saying, “Fewer rosaries on the ovaries and more sexual and reproductive health, seriously.” Catholic Church members expressed alarm about the official’s tweet and expressed their concerns on social media. Local government authorities requested the official retract the tweet and offer a public apology, which the official did. In September State Health Administration Services Director Pablo Cabrera participated in the government’s annual Diversity March wearing a Catholic cardinal’s traditional attire in what some participants said was a mockery of religion. The Catholic Church, the President’s Human Rights Office, and several opposition legislators condemned the behavior.
Media reported in November Minister of Education Maria Julia Munoz called evangelical Protestant churches “the plague that grows” in a WhatsApp group. Deputy of the National Party Alvaro Dastugue denounced Munoz for having a “xenophobic and discriminatory position.” A member of the evangelical Protestant bench of parliament said he would ask President Vazquez to remove the minister.
In June the government officially declared March 19 as the date to annually commemorate secularism in the country, in accordance with a parliamentary law passed in 2017. Parliament said celebrating secularism was an element of the country’s identity, embedded in the constitution and contributing to religious tolerance in society. Differing interpretations of the term “secularism” continued to lead to disagreements on the state’s role in enforcing the country’s secularism laws. In October an opposition party criticized Governor of Salto Department Andres Lima for receiving a blessing from an evangelical Protestant pastor in his office; his own party also criticized him. One legislator said that “Uruguay should not allow any religion to invade official government offices” and that Governor Lima should be held accountable for his lack of respect for the country’s policy on secularism. Some members of Catholic and evangelical Protestant groups said government stances on sex education, gender, and abortion threatened their freedom of speech and the right to practice their religion.
Religious organizations said they welcomed opportunities for direct dialogue with the government on religious freedom; however, they reported there were few or no formal channels of communication with the government to raise concerns or discuss initiatives related to religious freedom. Religious leaders noted that the national government did not actively convene an interfaith dialogue, but some local government officials supported interfaith events through in-kind donations, financial contributions, or participation in events. Minority religious groups such as Baha’is, Muslims, Anglicans, Methodists, and the Church of Jesus Christ 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.
According to press reports, decisions on the installation of religious monuments in public places continued to generate tensions between religious authorities and the government, as well as among different political parties. In October opposition council members of the Cerro Largo Department opposed the governor’s installation of a Bible monument, because they stated it violated secularism and did not go through the proper channels of approval. During the year, local governments allowed the public placement of other statues and monuments of a religious nature. By year’s end, the government had not yet made a decision on 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 the River Plate.
In May the government approved a request from the Muslim community to provide a space encompassing 360 square feet to accommodate 20 Islamic graves in the public North Cemetery in Montevideo. In June the Canelones Department government agreed to establish the country’s first Islamic cemetery next to the public Soca Cemetery, with a total area of 27,000 square feet.
The government organized workshops throughout the year to raise awareness of societal discrimination and promote tolerance, including related to religion. In March to mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the INDDHH expressed its commitment to implement programs and training to eradicate discriminatory practices in society and promote respect for human rights including freedom of religion. During Diversity Month in September, the government committed to strengthening antidiscrimination public policies and promoting tolerance. The government organized a week of workshops to raise awareness on all forms of societal discrimination and promote tolerance. A portion of the event was specifically dedicated to democracy, secularism, and human rights. As part of Diversity Month, the government premiered a film titled Faith in Resistance, which documented religion during the 1973-85 dictatorship era in the country. The film was produced with support from the government and civil society organizations.
As in previous years, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported activities to commemorate the Holocaust. Parliament organized a special session in January to honor Holocaust victims. Also in January the government issued a nationally broadcast message commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The “Shoah Project,” an online educational tool on the Holocaust, had its annual contest during the year for high school students to raise awareness of Holocaust resistance fighters and of the continuing need to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.