The preamble to the constitution acknowledges “the supremacy of God.” The constitution provides for freedom of religion, freedom to change one’s religion or belief, and freedom to express one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. It also provides for freedom, either alone or in community with others, to manifest and propagate one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion. It states that no one may be compelled to take an oath contrary to one’s religion or belief. The constitution also stipulates religious groups may establish places of education and states that “no such community shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for persons of that community.” A rarely enforced law limits speech that is deemed “blasphemous or indecent.”
By law, the BCC, a council that includes representatives from several major Christian denominations, and the BAEC alternate in the appointment of the church senator, with the governor general’s concurrence. The BCC includes the Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian Churches, as well as the Salvation Army, the Chinese Christian Mission, Seventh-day Adventists, and the Young Women’s Christian Association. The BAEC includes evangelical Protestant groups, the Church of Christ, and the Assembly of God Church but excludes the NEAB. The church senator, by law, also represents non-Christian groups.
By law, the church senator provides advice on public policy affecting the political positions of religious groups. This senatorial seat places the political interests of religious leaders on par with three other senators, who are appointed to represent labor unions, the business community, and the NGO community. The Senate is the upper chamber of the country’s bicameral National Assembly; the governor general appoints senators for a five-year term, while members of the House of Representatives run for election every five years.
The law requires all religious groups to register with the official Companies Registry in the Ministry of the Attorney General the same way a business would register. Registration allows a religious organization to operate legally in the country; receive state recognition; negotiate, sue, and be sued; own property; hire employees; and lend or borrow money. There is a one-time registration fee of 295 Belize dollars ($148) and a yearly fee of five Belize dollars ($2.50). Requirements for registration include a memorandum of association with the government delineating the group’s objective and mission, an article of association, and a letter from the Central Bank if the organization has foreign financial contributors. The government may shut down the facilities of groups that do not register.
The government does not levy property taxes on churches and other places of worship. Other church-owned buildings occupied on a regular basis, such as clergy residences, are not tax-exempt. Religious organizations may also partner with the state to operate schools, hospitals, and other charitable organizations and, depending on funding availability, receive financial assistance from the government.
The public school curriculum includes weekly nondenominational “spirituality” classes incorporating morals and values. Government-supported, church-run schools may teach lessons on world religions for students from kindergarten through high school as part of social studies curricula. These church-run schools also offer separate religious education classes that are specific to their own faith. While there is no official rule governing a student’s ability to opt out of either of these classes, parents may decide their children will not attend. The constitution prohibits any educational institution from obligating a child to attend any religious ceremony or observance.
Due to insufficient government funds and preindependence agreements, Christian churches manage most public elementary schools, high schools, and some colleges. Churches comanage with the government approximately 60 percent of primary schools, 40 percent of high schools, and 50 percent of colleges. Churches that comanage educational institutions include the Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Seventh-day Adventist, Baptist, Nazarene, Salvation Army, evangelical Protestant, Presbyterian, Muslim, Pentecostal, and Mennonite Churches. Schools routinely observe Christian and other religious holidays at the schools’ discretion. Non-Christian religious groups operate a few schools, such as the Muslim Community Primary School in Belize City. All schools, public and private, must incorporate the national education curriculum and adhere to government regulations under the monitoring of the Ministry of Education. Some Mennonite communities run primary schools in their villages, independent of Ministry of Education oversight and based on Mennonite religious teachings. Only some of these schools align with the national education curriculum for mathematics, science, and social studies.
The law grants respect for prison inmates’ religious beliefs, and inmates may participate in religious activities in the country’s sole prison. Religious leaders may request use of the chapel inside the facility and offer religious services to inmates. The law prohibits requiring unnecessary work by prisoners on Sunday and other major Christian holidays (Christmas and Good Friday) and by prisoners recorded as belonging to other religions on their recognized days of religious observance. The law allows the provision of religious scriptures and other books of religious observance to prisoners.
To enter the country and proselytize, foreign religious workers require a multientry visa that costs 100 Belize dollars ($50) and is valid for one year. Applicants must also purchase a religious worker’s permit that costs 50 Belize dollars ($25) and is renewable annually. Visa applications request information on an applicant’s intended length of stay, location of service, availability of funding for their activity, and specific purpose. Members of all religious groups are eligible to obtain visas. While a group does not need to be locally registered, a recommendation by a locally registered religious group lends more credibility to the visa request, according to local authorities.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In January, the government expanded the title and scope of the Ministry of Public Service and Constitutional and Political Reform to include Religious Affairs, with the stated objective of improving the government’s communication with all the country’s religious organizations. In remarks on the launch of the new office and renaming the ministry, the Minister of Public Service, Constitutional and Political Reform, and Religious Affairs, Henry Charles Usher, welcomed “the opportunity of merging the public service with the Christian fundamental principles upon which our country is based.” The NEAB and BCC commended the government for creating the portfolio. The NEAB stated it was “appropriate and fitting for such an initiative to be in place for the betterment of all Belizeans.” Members of the LGBTQI+ community, however, immediately expressed “concern over the ambiguity” of the new office, saying it would result in further prejudice and discrimination against LGBTQI+ individuals and efforts to promote equality. Prime Minister Briceño stated there was a need for the new office to improve government communication with all religious groups, including non-Christian ones. Senator Benguche said that through the new office, religious groups were better positioned to raise and discuss matters of national importance, including crime, poverty, and education.
According to Senator Benguche, some non-Christian religious groups, including Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at, participated in the church senator’s activities, but most of these groups said they had chosen not to play a role in the senator’s appointment. Religious leaders said there was a desire among other religious groups for a more inclusive platform to elevate concerns to the government. The church senator’s activities included government consultations on legislation and issues of national importance.
On March 31, a bill to legalize the recreational use, commercial production, and sale of cannabis received majority support in parliament, requiring only the governor general’s signature to become law. In May, a coalition of churches, including the BCC and the NEAB, submitted a formal request to the governor general for a national referendum on the legalization of cannabis. Senator Benguche said the churches decided to submit the petition “because we think [the bill] is a backward step being undertaken in the name of a new growth industry.” In July, the governor general approved the churches’ request and informed the Office of the Prime Minister of the constitutional requirement to hold a referendum. Due to the referendum’s expense, on August 4, the church coalition and the government agreed to defer the referendum until banking issues related to cannabis proceeds could be resolved. NEAB representatives said the NEAB was concerned the government intended to include the issue of removing the British monarch as the country’s head of state in the referendum, thereby creating confusion among the electorate. NEAB representatives also said the government had failed to “properly” consult them on the proposed law before it went to parliament. The BAEC noted that while the proposed legislation intended to regulate the sale of cannabis, government involvement in commercial cannabis production and distribution remained unclear.
Despite major opposition by some religious groups, BCC and NEAB representatives said they would consider legalizing cannabis for medicinal purposes only.
Throughout the year, the government held discussions with the BCC, BAEC, NEAB, Senator Benguche, and several other religious leaders regarding new legislation and amendments to existing laws, including amendments to the criminal code, the marriage act, and misuse of the drugs bill (legalization of cannabis).
According to the BAEC, the government exercised more influence in evangelical Protestant school administration by changing the board structure overseeing schools comanaged by government and religious organizations. BAEC and NEAB representatives said the government’s Teaching Service Commission did not allow religious leaders to freely employ the “most spiritually fit” teachers. BAEC representatives also said there was a lack of government support for church-run school meal programs. NEAB representatives stated that while the government did not discriminate against its religious activities, it “tried to restrict” the role of church leaders regarding the comanagement of schools and administration of religious curriculum. According to NEAB representatives, of grave concern was what it considered to be an “LGBT agenda” applied in the school curriculum under the guise of human rights.
In February, Prime Minister Briceño and other government officials and national religious leaders, including Catholic Church Bishop Lawrence Nicasio and Methodist Church Bishop Benguche, attended the opening of the new Ahmadiyya Muslim Noor Mosque in Belize City. Prime Minister Briceño stated the group “has played a positively influential role in the lives of many … to build a brotherhood and a community that contributes to Belize’s continued development.” According to members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, the government supported them in “most of their activities” where they sought partnership, including outreach programs for at-risk youth and humanitarian assistance to marginalized communities.
In July, the government introduced a bill to establish the People’s Constitutional Commission to review the constitution and to provide recommendations to the National Assembly. Minister Usher officially launched the commission on November 14. After seeking nominations from religious groups, he appointed Maria Zabaneh of the BCC as the principal commissioner and Lance Lewis of the NEAB as the alternate. Religious leaders said the government expected these two Christian organizations to consult with all religious groups. According to Senator Benguche, he consulted with all religious leaders regardless of affiliation and encouraged their contributions on national issues. Benguche also stated his commitment to strengthen relations with the Muslim community but said non-Christian religious groups had not communicated their perspectives regarding the People’s Constitutional Commission to him, even though he is legally responsible for representing all religious groups in the National Assembly.
During meetings with the Ministry of Public Service, Constitutional and Political Reform, and Religious Affairs, church representatives said they expressed concerns regarding the rise in crime, limited access to education in some parts of the country, and the rise in poverty. Church leaders also expressed concerns regarding proposed amendments to the law on marriage, saying the amendments could be interpreted as permitting same-sex marriage. During parliamentary sessions, Senator Benguche stated that he repeatedly requested the government conduct public business with transparency and accountability regarding anticorruption.
According to prison officials, authorities allowed inmates to communicate with religious officiants by mail and to receive counselling from spiritual leaders, including from the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.
The Belize Defense Force (BDF) continued to retain a nondenominational chaplain and space for religious observance. With prior BDF consent, any religious group could use the space for worship.