Costa Rica

International Religious Freedom Report 2004
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The Constitution establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion; however, persons of all denominations freely practice their religion without government interference.

There was no fundamental change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, although certain legal and administrative liberalization took place. Government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 19,730 square miles, and its population is approximately 4.3 million.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Religion, 69 percent of the population is Catholic, with 40 percent of that figure actively practicing Catholicism. A September 2003 CID-Gallup poll found that an estimated 18 percent belong to non-Catholic Christian churches. Approximately 1 percent practiced non-Christian faiths and 12 percent practiced no religion at all. Protestant Christian denominations include the Methodist, Baptist, Evangelical, and Episcopal Churches. Other groups include the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists. A Mormon temple in San Jose serves as a regional worship center for Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Although they represent less than 1 percent of the population, Jehovah's Witnesses have a strong presence on the Caribbean coast. Seventh-day Adventists operate a university, attracting students from throughout the Caribbean Basin. The Unification Church maintains its Continental Headquarters for Latin America in San Jose. Non-Christian religions, including Judaism, Islam, Taoism, Hare Krishna, Scientology, Tenrikyo, and the Baha'i Faith, claim membership throughout the country with the majority of worshippers residing in the Central Valley. On the southern Atlantic coast, several small indigenous tribes practice animism.

The country's tradition of tolerance and professed pacifism has attracted many religious groups. The Jewish population constitutes less than 1 percent of the country's total. Many of its members found refuge here before and during the Second World War. The mountain community of Monteverde, a popular tourist destination, was founded during the Korean War by Quakers from the United States, acting on their convictions as conscientious objectors. The country welcomed this community, as well as those of Mennonites, Beechy Amish, and other pacifist religious groups.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The Government at all levels strives to protect this right in full and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors.

The Constitution establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion and requires that the State contribute to its maintenance. However, it also prohibits the State from impeding the free exercise of other religions that do not impugn universal morality or proper behavior. Members of all denominations freely practice their religion without government interference. In the event of a violation of religious freedom, the victim's remedy is to file a lawsuit with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, which may order the defendant to pay a fine, serve jail time, or compensate the plaintiff for such discrimination.

There is no general tax exoneration for the Catholic Church or any other church; there is an exoneration only for real estate that is used directly for worship by any religious organization. The blanket exoneration previously enjoyed by the Catholic Church was amended in 1992. The amended law allows for the Government to provide land to the Catholic Church. In some cases, the Government retains ownership of the land but grants the Church free use. In other situations, property simply is donated to the Church. This second method commonly is used to provide land for the construction of local churches; however, these methods do not meet all the needs of the Church, which also buys some land outright. Government-to-Church land transfers are not covered under any blanket legislation. Instead, they are handled by specific legislative action once or twice per year.

The Government does not inhibit the establishment of religious groups through taxation or special licensing requirements for religious organizations. Religious groups are not required to register with the Government;however, groups must incorporate to have legal standing, like any other organization, and must have a minimum of twelve members. Also, religious groups must register with the Justice Department if they will be involved in any type of fundraising activity.

Various Catholic religious holidays are considered national holidays; these include St. Joseph's Day, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, St. Peter and St. Paul's Day, Our Lady of Los Angeles, All Soul's Day, the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, and Christmas. However, if an individual wishes to observe another religious holiday, the Labor Code provides the necessary flexibility for that observance upon the employer's approval.

Although not mandatory, Catholic religious instruction is provided in the public schools. Students may obtain exemptions from this instruction with the permission of their parents. The school director, the student's parents, and the student's teacher must agree on an alternative course of instruction for the exempted student during the time of the Catholic instruction. Religious education teachers in public schools must be certified by the Roman Catholic Church Conference, which does not certify teachers from other denominations or faiths. This certification is not required of public school educators who do not teach religion. Denominational and nondenominational private schools are free to offer any religious instruction they choose. Parents do not have the option of home schooling their children.

Only officials of the Catholic Church can officiate marriages that are automatically recognized by the state. Other religious groups can perform wedding ceremonies, but the marriage must then be legalized with a civil union. Couples may also choose to have only a civil ceremony.

In addition the Government traditionally affords the Catholic Church an opportunity to participate in social, economic and political events. In the spring and summer of 2003, the Catholic Church was involved actively in negotiations to end labor strikes and signed a manifesto against child labor. In October 2003, it requested the Legislative Assembly to annul a 1999 Presidential Decree allowing voluntary sterilization. During negotiations for the Central American Free Trade Agreement in fall 2003, the Catholic Church expressed concern for the social implications of the agreement and proposed to act as facilitator for an internal country dialogue. In March it announced plans to initiate a multiyear dialogue between members of the Government, the Catholic Church, and civil society to analyze five themes the Catholic Church believes are fundamental to national development: economic solidarity, political reform, education reform, ethics of development, and combating poverty.

The Government does not restrict the establishment of places of worship. All such applications are submitted to the local municipality and must comply with safety and noise regulations. New churches, primarily evangelical Protestant churches that are located in residential neighborhoods, occasionally have conflicts with local governments due to neighbors' complaints about noise and traffic. Some churches reportedly have been closed by municipalities, health departments, or police as a result. In contrast established Catholic Churches often were built around a municipal square and rarely present such problems.

Despite the official status of the Catholic Church, the Constitution prohibits clergymen or secular individuals from engaging in political propaganda motivated by religion. There is no prohibition on clergymen or religious individuals serving in political office. A Government decree of October 23, 2003 facilitates the entry of representatives of all religions to prisons and hospitals in order to minister to their members.

Foreign missionaries and clergy of all denominations work and proselytize freely. Mormons have the most active mission program, with 37 missionaries currently in country. Many churches have short-term missions that may last a month or less, and can comprise up to 20 persons.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Government policy and practice contributed to the generally free practice of religion.

While the required oath for government service includes the phrase "before God and country," an alternate oath is available to those who choose to use it.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

On October 23, 2003, President Pacheco signed two bills into law granting equal access to hospitals and prisons for representatives of all religions. Prior to this legislation, only the Catholic Church had been guaranteed unrestricted access. Representatives of other religions had been required to follow routine procedures for the general public to gain entrance, which could be strict and cumbersome. Some Protestant ministers had been able to reach agreements with hospitals allowing their unrestricted entrance; however, hospital directors could revoke it at any time. These bills, introduced by a Protestant minister representing a political party in the Legislative Assembly, also create a legal framework for the establishment and operation of non-Catholic religious groups, including accreditation of their officials.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. The country has a history of tolerance.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. Embassy officials have met with the Archbishop of San Jose to discuss economic, social and labor issues, and have also communicated with other religious leaders and faith-based nongovernmental organizations as issues warrant. The Embassy coordinates with the Ministry of Foreign Relation's Director of Religion regarding multilateral efforts to ban all forms of human cloning.