The constitution provides for freedom of religion and the right to profess one’s religious beliefs. It also prohibits discrimination based on religion. It states there is no official church or religion, but adds that the state “is not atheist or agnostic, nor indifferent to Colombians’ religious sentiment.” A 1973 concordat between the Holy See and the government remains in effect, although some of its articles are unenforceable because of constitutional provisions on freedom of religion. The law prohibits any official government reference to a religious characterization of the country.
Although the constitution mandates separation of religion and state, the Catholic Church retains a privileged status. Non-Catholic religious groups must gain accession to a 1997 public law agreement with the state to perform state-recognized marriages and provide chaplaincy services to military personnel, public hospital patients, and prisoners. When deciding whether to grant accession, the government considers a religious group’s total membership, its degree of acceptance within society, and other factors such as the organization’s statutes and its required behavioral norms.
Under the 1997 public law agreement, the MOI is responsible for legally recognizing churches, religious denominations, religious federations and confederations, and associations of religious ministers, and keeps a public registry of religious entities. Entities legally recognized by the MOI can then confer legal recognition through an associate status, called “extended public recognition,” to affiliated groups sharing the same beliefs. The application process requires submission of a formal request and basic organizational information. The MOI may reject requests that do not comply fully with established requirements or that violate constitutional rights.
The state recognizes as legally binding religious marriages performed by the Catholic Church, the Jewish Community, and the 13 religious groups that are signatories to the 1997 public law agreement, as well as religious groups holding an associate status with those signatories. Members of religious groups that are neither signatories to the agreement nor affiliates must marry in a civil ceremony for the state to recognize the marriage.
An antidiscrimination law imposes a penalty of one to three years in prison or a fine of 5.3 million to 8.0 million pesos (COP) ($2,200 to $3,400) for violations, including discrimination based on religion. The penal code contains a chapter on discrimination that includes religious belief.
A Constitutional Court ruling states that citizens, including members of indigenous communities, may be exempt from compulsory military service if they can demonstrate a serious and permanent commitment to religious principles that prohibit the use of force. Conscientious objectors who are exempted from military service are required to complete alternative, government-selected public service.
The constitution recognizes the right of parents to choose the type of education that their children receive, including religious instruction. It states that no student shall be forced to receive religious education in public schools. There is no religious component in the public school curriculum. Religious groups, including those that have not acceded to the public law agreement, may establish their own schools, provided they comply with Ministry of Education requirements. A Constitutional Court ruling obligates public and private schools to implement alternative accommodations for students based on their religion, following a 2007 petition of a Seventh-day Adventist university student to miss class on Saturday.
Foreign missionaries must possess a special visa, valid for up to two years. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues visas to foreign missionaries and religious group administrators who are members of religious organizations legally recognized and registered with the MOI. Applicants must have a certificate from either the MOI or church authorities confirming that their religious group is registered with the ministry. Alternatively, they may produce a certificate issued by a registered religious group confirming the applicant’s membership and mission in the country. The application also requires a letter issued by a legal representative of the religious group stating the organization accepts full financial responsibility for the expenses of the applicant and family, including funds for return to their country of origin or last country of residence. Applicants must explain the purpose of the proposed sojourn and provide proof of economic means. A Supreme Court ruling stipulates that no group may force religious conversion on members of indigenous communities.