The constitution states everyone has the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” and “the church shall be separate from the state.” It allows restrictions on the expression of religious beliefs in order to protect public safety, welfare, morals, the democratic structure of the state, and others’ rights. The law gives eight “traditional” religious groups – Lutherans, Catholics, Latvian 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 MOJ. These eight groups are also the only religious groups represented on the government Ecclesiastical Council, an advisory body established by law and chaired by the prime minister that meets on an ad hoc basis to comment and provide recommendations on religious issues. These recommendations do not carry the force of law.
Separate 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 status to own property and conduct financial transactions and tax deductions for donors. Registration also allows religious groups to perform religious activities in hospitals, prisons, and military units and hold services in public places such as parks or public squares with the agreement of the local government. The law accords the same rights and privileges to the eight “traditional” religious groups without requiring them to register. These groups are only required to submit annual reports on their activities to the MOJ. Unregistered groups do not possess legal status, may not perform religious activities in hospitals, prisons, and military units, or hold worship services in any place other than the group’s own property without special permission. The law stipulates a fine 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. 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. To apply, religious groups must submit their statutes, stipulating their aims and tasks; a list of all group members (full name, identification card code, and signature); minutes of the meeting founding the group; confirmation that members voted on and approved the statutes; a list of members (full name, identification card code, and title) of the revision committee, which is responsible for preparing financial reports on the group and ensuring it adheres to its statutes; and the names of the persons who will represent the religious organization. The MOJ determines whether to register a religious group as a congregation. The ministry may deny an application if it deems registration would threaten human rights, the democratic structure of the state, or public safety, welfare, or morals.
Ten or more congregations – totaling at least 200 members – of the same faith or denomination, each with permanent registration status, may form a religious association or church. Groups with religious association status, or status as a private society or foundation, may establish theological schools or monasteries. The law does not permit simultaneous registration of more than one religious association of a single faith or denomination. For example, the law prevents any association other than the Latvian Orthodox Church from registering with the word “orthodox” in its name; independent Orthodox faiths, such as Old Believers, are registered as separate religious associations.
The law requires religious congregations, but not religious associations, registered for fewer than 10 years to reregister every year. Reregistration requires an MOJ evaluation of the group’s activities in the previous year and submission of the same documentation as first-time registrants.
According to the law, all registered religious organizations are required to submit by March 1 an annual report to the MOJ regarding their activities and goals. They must additionally provide other data, including congregation size, the number of clergy, the number of weddings, baptisms, and other ceremonies performed, and details of group governance and financial status.
The law criminalizes hate speech and the incitement of hatred on the basis of religious affiliation, but requires legal proof, determined at trial, of substantial harm. The commission of a crime with a religious basis can be considered an aggravating factor at trial.
The government provides funding for optional religion classes in public schools taught by the eight “traditional” religious groups. Denominations must receive the approval of the parents of at least 10 students in order to hold these classes. The Center for Educational Content in the Ministry of Education must review curriculum content of the classes to verify they do not violate freedom of conscience. First- to third-grade public school students must take either a religious or ethics class; for older students, these classes are elective. Schools are permitted to teach more in-depth classes on religion with education ministry authorization. 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. Religious courses in public schools range from doctrinal instruction by church-approved instructors (usually at the lower grades), to nondenominational Christian teachings or overviews of major world religions by certified teachers suggested by a religious group and approved by the education ministry (usually at higher grades).
The law establishes an independent ombudsman’s office for human rights. Its mandate includes helping to resolve cases of religious discrimination through collaboration with authorities. While it does not have enforcement powers, it can issue recommendations to specific authorities.
Visa regulations require foreign religious workers to present letters of invitation, typically from a religious organization, and either an ordination certificate or evidence of religious education that corresponds to a local bachelor’s degree in theology. The law stipulates foreign missionaries may hold meetings and proselytize only if invited by registered domestic religious groups to conduct such activities.