The constitution provides for freedom of thought and religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion or belief either alone or in community with others, both in public and in private, and to manifest and propagate one’s religion or belief in worship. It prohibits discrimination based on belief. The constitution provides that rights and freedoms are protected to the extent they do not “prejudice the rights and freedoms of others.”
A colonial-era law criminalizing Obeah and Myalism remains in effect. Potential punishment for practicing Obeah and Myalism includes imprisonment of up to 12 months. Authorities have rarely enforced the law since the country became independent in 1962, and the government reported no enforcement cases during the year.
Registration with the government is not mandatory for religious groups, but groups, including churches or congregations, may incorporate to gain benefits, including the ability to hold land, enter into legal disputes as an organization, and allow their clergy to visit prisoners. Groups seeking incorporated status apply to the Companies Office of Jamaica, an executive agency. The application comprises a standard form and a fee of 24,500 Jamaican dollars ($180). NGOs register through the same form and fee structure. Groups incorporated through this process must subsequently submit annual reports and financial statements to the Companies Office.
Alternatively, groups may petition parliament to be incorporated by parliamentary act. Such groups receive similar benefits to those incorporating through the Companies Office, but parliament does not require annual reports or regulate the organizations it incorporates.
Regardless of incorporation status, religious groups seeking tax-exempt status must register as charities. To be considered a charity, an organization must apply either to the Department of Co-operatives and Friendly Societies, located in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture, and Fisheries, or to the Companies Office. Once registered, groups also submit their registration to the Jamaica Customs Agency in the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service and apply to Tax Administration Jamaica to be considered for tax-free status.
The constitution states religious groups have the right to provide religious instruction to members of their communities. By law, immunizations are mandatory for all children attending both public and private schools; however, exceptions for medical reasons may be granted. The law requires school administrators to adhere to several practices regarding the teaching of religion. No individual may be required to receive religious instruction or participate in religious observances contrary to his or her beliefs. The public school curriculum includes nondenominational religious education, which focuses on the historical role of religion in society and philosophical thought and includes group visits to Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu houses of worship. Students may not opt out of religious education, but religious devotion or practice during school hours is optional. The Jamaican Education Act of 1980 states that, “It shall be the duty of the parent of every child of compulsory school age residing in a compulsory education area to cause him to receive full-time education suitable to his age and ability, and satisfactory to the Educational Board for the area, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.” Under the “or otherwise” phrase in the law, families may homeschool their children.
Churches operate several private schools. Churches also run a number of public schools, for which they receive funding from the government and must abide by Ministry of Education, Youth, and Information rules. Regulations mandate that religious schools receiving public funding must admit students of all faiths and adhere to ministry standards. Religious schools are not subject to any special restrictions; they do not receive special treatment from the government based on their religious or denominational affiliation. Most religious schools are affiliated with Catholic or Protestant churches. The Islamic Council of Jamaica runs two schools.
Foreign religious workers, regardless of affiliation, who visit the country to work with a religious organization must obtain a visa and a work permit from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In September the Supreme Court heard a case brought by the parents of a then-five-year-old child blocked in 2018 from attending Kensington Primary School, a public school, until her dreadlocks were cut. Although the child’s parents did not identify as Rastafarian, nor did they claim they were raising the child as Rastafarian, the case continued to garner attention from advocacy and religious groups who noted the case’s symbolic representation and potential impact on cultural identity and religious expression. This case was reportedly the first to be heard before the Supreme Court that involved a minor with dreadlocks not being allowed to attend school. On September 3, the attorney general filed an affidavit in support of the public school, stating the school’s policy was “targeted at hairstyles that were found to be the source of bad hygiene and disorder in classes.” The Supreme Court was still in deliberation on the case and made no ruling by year’s end. The family involved expressed dismay at the notion that their child was “nasty,” “unsanitary,” or “dirty” due to her hairstyle. In subsequent commentary related to the case, Minister of Culture Olivia Grange stated her ministry would work with the Ministries of Education and Health and the Attorney General’s Office to ensure guidance issued on grooming and appropriate appearance did not target specific hair textures and hairstyles, race, or religion.
Rastafarians said discrimination against their children at schools occurred, mostly in rural areas. This included purported discrimination based on hairstyles and the Rastafarian community’s continued religious opposition to immunization. The government stated immunizations were part of its campaign to reduce the resurgence of many communicable diseases in the country. Although the law allowed immunization exceptions for only medical reasons, Rastafarian students continued to be able to obtain a doctor’s note excusing them from the requirement.
The Jamaican Defense Force (JDF) generally did not accept Rastafarians into its ranks. The JDF noted it did not discriminate based on religion or denomination, but, according to JDF officials, the force’s very strict codes of conduct regarding hair length and the prohibition of marijuana among its members were the “real obstacles” to Rastafarian participation in the force. Reportedly there was no person self-identified as Rastafarian in the JDF.
In June Minister of Justice Chuck responded to significant media and social media pressure when editorials in the nation’s leading newspapers and the public condemned his suggestion in parliament to repeal the 1898 Obeah Act. According to media reports, the minister later stated that his remarks had been “misinterpreted” and that the government considered repealing the Obeah Act only to replace it with a broader law that banned Obeah and addressed “fraudulent activities” related to people’s belief systems. The minister said the Obeah law would remain on the books while the government worked on other legislation to address “fraudulent activities” associated with Obeah and to protect vulnerable persons from exploitation. While no one from the Obeah community publicly commented on the law, observers stated they believed their reluctance to speak out was due to the potential for punishment. According to press, no one had been convicted of an Obeah-related offense in more than two decades, and the religion maintained only a shadow of its former popularity.
In connection with the observance of National Heritage Week on October 13-21, Minister of Education, Youth, and Information Alando Terrelonge stated the theme “Our Heritage… A Great Legacy” summons all Jamaicans to unite “whatever their race, color, religion, or creed.”
According to media, the government took further steps to disburse funds from a trust it established in 2017 to compensate victims of the 1963 Coral Gardens incident. During the incident, for which Prime Minister Andrew Holness apologized in 2017, eight persons were killed and more than 150 were injured in clashes between security forces and a Rastafarian farming community outside Montego Bay. Jamaicans for Justice, a local NGO providing legal representation for the victims and survivors of the violence, said in 2018 that it had finally received all information necessary, including the total number of beneficiaries, to finalize compensation with the Administrator General Department. In June, however, Lewis Brown, treasurer of the Rastafari Coral Gardens Benevolent Society, told media that no disbursements had occurred, and no further information from the government was forthcoming.