The constitution states everyone has the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” and “the church shall be separate from the state.” The law gives eight religious groups - Lutherans, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Old Believers, Baptists, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jews - some rights and privileges not given to other religious groups, including the right to teach religion courses in public schools and the right to officiate at marriages without obtaining a civil marriage license from the Ministry of Justice. These eight groups are also the only religious groups represented on the government’s Ecclesiastical Council, an advisory body established by law and chaired by the prime minister that meets irregularly to comment on and provide recommendations on religious issues. These recommendations do not carry the force of law.
Religion-specific laws define relations between the state and each of these eight groups. The rights and activities of other religious groups are covered by the law on religious organizations.
Although the government does not require religious groups to register, the law accords registered religious groups a number of rights and privileges, including legal entity status for owning property and conducting financial transactions, and providing tax benefits for donors. Registration allows religious groups to perform religious activities in hospitals, prisons and military units, and also to hold services in public places such as parks or public squares with the agreement of the local government. Unregistered groups do not possess legal entity status, may not perform religious activities in hospitals, prisons and military units, and may not hold worship services in public places. The law prescribes various fines if an unregistered group carries out any of these activities.
The law stipulates that in order to register as a congregation, a religious group must have at least 20 members over the age of 18 recorded in the population register. Individuals with temporary residency status, such as asylum seekers and foreign diplomatic staff, may count as members for the purpose of registration only during the authorized period of their residency permits. The justice ministry determines whether to register a religious group as a congregation. The ministry may deny an application if registration would threaten human rights, the democratic structure of the state, or public safety, welfare, or morals.
Ten or more congregations of the same faith or denomination, each with permanent registration status, may form a religious association (or a church). Groups with religious association status, or status as a private society or foundation, may establish recognized places of worship, theological schools, or monasteries. The law does not permit simultaneous registration of more than one religious association in a single faith or denomination. For example, the law prevents any church other than the Latvian Orthodox Church from registering with the word “orthodox” in its name.
The law distinguishes between religious congregations registered for at least 10 years and those registered for fewer than 10 years, which are subject to annual reregistration requirements. Marriage ceremonies performed by clergy of religious groups registered for less than 10 years, and also by religious associations registered for more than 10 years but not represented in the Ecclesiastical Council must be supplemented by a civil marriage license.
According to the law, registered religious organizations are required to submit an annual report to the Ministry of Justice by March 1 regarding their activities, in accordance with the procedures specified by the cabinet.
The law criminalizes the incitement of hatred on the basis of religious affiliation, although there is no legal definition of a hate crime.
The law does not provide a mechanism for the restitution of communal and religious properties confiscated or nationalized during World War II.
The government provides funding for optional religion classes taught by the eight authorized religious groups as long as the Center for Educational Content in the Ministry of Education has approved the curriculum content. Students at state-supported national minority schools may attend classes on a voluntary basis on the religion “characteristic of the national minority.” Other religious groups without their own state-supported minority schools may provide religious education only in private schools. Depending on the grade level, courses in public schools range from doctrinal instruction by church-approved instructors, to non-denominational Christian teachings, to overviews of major world religions. Parents can also register their children for voluntary, non-religious ethics classes.
The ombudsman's office is an independent human rights institution established by law to help resolve matters that include religion-based discrimination.
Visa regulations require foreign religious workers to present letters of invitation and either an ordination certificate or evidence of religious education that corresponds to a local bachelor’s degree in theology.
The law stipulates that foreign missionaries may hold meetings and proselytize only if invited by domestic religious groups to conduct such activities.