Under its broader protections of freedom of conscience, the constitution provides for freedom of thought and religion, the right to change religion or belief, and the right to manifest and propagate religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. The constitution permits the government to restrict these rights in the interest of protecting the rights of other persons, national defense, public safety, public order, public morality, or public health when the restrictions are deemed “reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.” The government has never exercised this provision. The constitution’s provision of rights also prohibits discrimination based on creed.
The constitution permits religious groups to establish places for religious instruction at their expense. The constitution prohibits requiring religious instruction or participation in religious ceremonies in a religion other than one’s own. The constitution also prohibits compelling an individual to take an oath contrary to that individual’s religious beliefs. The penal code criminalizes “hate speech” towards any person or group based on “race, tribe, place of origin, color or creed” and imposes a maximum fine of 500 pula ($46) per violation.
All organizations, including religious groups, must register with the government. To register, a group must submit its constitution to the Registrar of Societies section of the Ministry of Nationality, Immigration, and Gender Affairs. Registration enables religious groups to conduct business, sign contracts, and open an account at a local bank. In order to register, new religious groups must have a minimum of 150 members. For previously registered religious groups, the membership threshold is 10. Any person who manages, assists in the management of, or holds an official position in an unregistered group is subject to a fine of up to 1,000 pula ($93) and up to seven years in prison. Any member of an unregistered group is subject to penalties, including fines up to 500 pula ($46) and up to three years in prison. According to 2019 data from the Registrar of Societies, there are 2,318 registered religious organizations.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Optional religious education remained part of the curriculum in public schools; this curriculum continued to emphasize Christianity, but it also discussed other religions practiced in the country. Government regulation of private schools did not distinguish among Christian, Muslim, or secular schools. In February, the government adopted a nondiscrimination policy in schools that allows students to wear a hijab or religiously-based head covering.
The government continued to pursue court cases involving unregistered churches (sometimes called “fire churches”) coming into the country to “take advantage of” local citizens by demanding tithes and donations for routine services or special prayers. The government required pastors of some of those churches to apply for visas, even those from countries whose nationals were normally allowed visa-free entry. The government ordered the Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG) in November 2019 to close its church branches in the country following cancellation of ECG’s registration in 2017 over questions of financial impropriety. The Church had appealed the decision, but during the year dropped its court challenge to its deregistration. The ECG, founded by a Malawian pastor who faced charges of fraud and money laundering in South Africa late in the year, had 14 branches in the country.
Although it was common for government meetings to begin with a Christian prayer, members of non-Christian groups occasionally led prayers as well.