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 that clergy 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 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 its 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 record 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.
Registered religious groups include the Roman Catholic Church, Greek Orthodox Church, Russian Orthodox Church, Episcopal Church, Methodist Church, Evangelical Methodist Church, the Baha’i Faith, Soka Gakkai International (Buddhist), Muslim Congregation of Colon, Muslim Congregation of Panama City, Muslim Congregation of Cocle Province, Muslim Congregation of Chiriqui Province, Jewish Kol Shearith Israel Congregation, Jewish Shevet Ahim Congregation, Jewish Beth El Congregation, Baptist Church, Church of Jesus Christ, Hossana Evangelical Church, Casa de Oracion (house of prayer) Cristiana Evangelical Church, Pentecostal Church, Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church, Crossroads Christian Church, and Ministry of the Family Christian Church. The Rastafarian Congregation is not registered.
By law, indigenous tribes have control of their own autonomous lands within the country, which are called comarcas (counties). The oldest one, established in 1938, belongs to the Guna Yala tribe. This autonomy allows them to practice their religions and cultural traditions without interference from the state.
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. Private religious schools may not refuse to enroll a student simply because they are not a member of that particular 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.
According to government sources, there were no pending religious applications before the Ministry of Government at year’s end. According to Rastafarian representatives, the congregation did not plan to register for legal status; they said the community was small and met informally at individual homes because there were no formal places of worship. Additionally, the Rastafarian community stated it had no plans to import religious articles for distribution, one of the primary reasons why religious organizations applied for legal status.
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, stating the government provided more funds to Catholic schools than other religious schools because there were more of them; however, privately some non-Catholic groups continued to state the government provided preferential distribution of the two-year cycle subsidies to small Catholic-run private schools for salaries and operating expenses. According to the Ombudsman’s Office, there were no religious discrimination claims submitted to the government during the year and none pending from previous years. The last complaint of religious discrimination received by the Ombudsman’s Office was filed in 2017 by a Rastafarian youth who was not allowed to enter a public school due to his braids. The Ombudsman’s Office reached out to the school principal, and the student was allowed to re-enter his school, thereby resolving the situation.
In January the country hosted World Youth Day in conjunction with the Vatican. Although the lead organizer was the local Catholic Church, the government provided logistical and security support for the event, which attracted approximately 250,000 foreign visitors. Non-Catholic groups said the government’s logistical and financial support for World Youth Day represented government preference for the Catholic Church. Some social media commentators also said the government showed religious bias because it used public monies to fund a Catholic event. According to an official government expense report, the previous administration spent 44 million balboas ($44 million) to fund World Youth Day.
The government continued to invite primarily Catholic clergy to conduct religious invocations at government events, including the opening of the National Assembly. Many official celebrations included the participation of high-ranking clergy of many religions at Catholic masses, including the Te Deum on November 3, which featured clergy of all member groups of the Interreligious Institute of Panama, with the president attending and in commemoration of the country’s 116th year of independence. Muslims and Jews continued to serve in senior positions in the government, including as ambassadors.