The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the free exercise of worship. It states that these practices must not be “opposed to morals, to good customs, or to the public order.” Religious groups may establish and maintain places of worship, as long as the locations comply with public hygiene and security regulations established by laws and municipal orders.
According to the constitution, religion and state are officially separate. The law prohibits discrimination based on religion, provides civil remedies to victims of discrimination based on their religion or belief, and increases criminal penalties for acts of discriminatory violence. The law prohibits discrimination in the provision of social services, education, ability to practice religious beliefs or gain employment, property rights, and the rights to build places of worship.
By law, registration for possible conscription to the military is mandatory for all men between the ages of 17 and 45. Eligible candidates are first allowed to volunteer for service; a draft is then conducted for the number of positions remaining up to the force requirements identified by the Ministry of Defense. Alternative service, by working for the armed forces in a job related to the selectee’s expertise, is possible only for those studying certain fields. The law makes no provision for conscientious objection. Only ministers or priests from registered religious organizations are exempted on religious grounds.
The law does not require religious groups to register with the government; however, there are tax benefits for those that do. Once registered, a religious group is recognized as a religious nonprofit organization; religious organizations have the option of adopting a charter and bylaws suited to a religious entity rather than a private corporation or a secular nonprofit. Under the law, religious nonprofit organizations may create affiliates, such as charitable foundations, schools, or additional houses of worship, which retain the tax benefits of the religious parent organization. According to ONAR, public law recognizes more than 3,200 religious organizations as legal entities, mostly small evangelical or Pentecostal churches. By law, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) may not refuse to accept the registration petition of a religious entity, although it may object to petitions within 90 days if legal prerequisites for registration are not satisfied.
Applicants for religious nonprofit status must present the MOJ with an authorized copy of their charter, corresponding bylaws with signatures, and the national identification numbers of charter signatories. The bylaws must include the organization’s mission, creed, and structure. The charter must specify the signatories, the name of the organization, and its physical address, and it must include confirmation that the religious institutions’ charter signatories approved the bylaws. In the event the MOJ raises objections to the group, the group may petition; the petitioning group has 60 days to address the MOJ’s objections or challenge them in court. Once a religious entity is registered, the state may not dissolve it by decree. If concerns are raised about a religious group’s activities after registration, the semiautonomous Council for the Defense of the State may initiate a judicial review of the matter. The government has never deregistered a legally registered group. One registration per religious group is sufficient to extend nonprofit status to affiliates, such as additional places of worship or schools, clubs, and sports organizations, without registering them as separate entities. According to ONAR, the MOJ receives approximately 30 petitions monthly. The MOJ has not objected to any petition and has registered every group that completed the required paperwork.
By law, all public schools must offer religious education for two teaching hours per week through pre-elementary, elementary, middle, and high school. Local school administrators decide how religious education classes are structured. The majority of religious instruction in public schools is Catholic. The Ministry of Education also has approved instruction curricula designed by 14 other religious groups, including orthodox and reformed Jews, evangelical Christians, and Seventh-day Adventists. Schools must provide religious instruction for students according to students’ religious affiliations. Parents may have their children excused from religious education. Parents also have the right to homeschool their children for religious reasons or enroll them in private, religiously oriented schools.
The law grants religious groups the right to appoint chaplains to offer religious services in public hospitals and prisons. Prisoners may request religious accommodations. Regulations for the armed forces and law enforcement agencies allow officially registered religious groups to appoint chaplains to serve in each branch of the armed forces, the national uniformed police, and the national investigative police.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
ONAR worked with local authorities in communities affected by attacks on churches to rebuild the damaged churches and guarantee continuity in the services they provide.
A wide-ranging investigation into sexual abuse and cover-up within the Catholic Church, launched in 2018, continued. In July prosecutors announced they were investigating Bishop Santiago Silva, president of the Episcopal Conference of Chile, for obstructing the investigation. Also in July, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in the country announced an internal investigation of abuse by the late Jesuit priest Renato Poblete found that allegations by all 22 purported victims were “plausible and credible.” The Jesuits apologized to the victims for failing to act earlier. To protect the identities of victims and witnesses, the Jesuits initially provided law enforcement with only an anonymized executive summary of the report. In October prosecutors obtained a court order forcing the Jesuits to turn over the full report.
In March an appeals court ruled in favor of three victims of Fernando Karadima, a Catholic priest who allegedly abused children for decades, in their civil case against the Archdiocese of Santiago for allegedly covering up the abuse. Karadima never faced criminal charges for his actions due to the statute of limitations; however, he was found guilty in a Church canonical trial in 2010 and removed from the priesthood.
Some religious leaders and groups continued to protest a gender identity law, which was passed in 2018 and came into effect in December, and allows transgender individuals 18 years and older (or 14 years and older with a parent’s or guardian’s consent) to change their name and gender in official records.
According to a December 2018 decision by the country’s comptroller general, municipalities do not have the legal authority to conduct foreign relations, and all public tenders must be guaranteed “equal and nondiscriminatory treatment” under the law. This decision derived from a December 2018 suit filed by the Jewish Community of Chile to block a municipal law in Valdivia that would have associated the city to the “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS)” movement. Jewish community leaders praised the decision on social media and in news reports.
During the year, ONAR held roundtable discussions with religious leaders in every region of the country to solicit their opinions on possible changes to law or policy regarding religious organizations and religious freedom. The roundtables replaced the previous government’s Interfaith Advisory Council, disbanded in 2018. Members of the disbanded Advisory Council formed a nongovernmental organization to continue their work, offering training and certification on religious diversity and interfaith dialogue. According to ONAR representatives, the constitutional rewrite, to take place in 2020-21 in response to large-scale protests calling for a new constitution, would likely lead to contentious debates on religious freedom and other human rights.