Jamaica

Last Updated 17 September 2021

Jamaica is a small island nation in the Caribbean of around 2.8 million people. Where once 98% of the population ascribed to a Christian denomination, this figure has now reduced to 60% of the population is Christian. There are significant populations of religious minorities, most notably Rastafarians.1https://www.visitjamaica.com/feel-the-vibe/people/faith/

Those who identify as having no religion have increased in recent decades and now represent about 22% of the population.2https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-report-on-international-religious-freedom/jamaica/#:~:text=Policy%20and%20Engagement-,Executive%20Summary,but%20it%20is%20not%20enforced While there is no formal organization that publicly represents the interests of non-believers, there is a Jamaican Secular Humanist community on social media.

The country obtained its independence from the UK in 1962. It remains a Commonwealth realm with the Queen of England acting as head of state who appoints a Governor General as her representative on the island.

 
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory
Free and Equal

Constitution and government

The Constitution3https://moj.gov.jm/sites/default/files/laws/Ja%20%28Constitution%29%20Order%20in%20Council%201962.pdf protects the rights to “freedom of thought, conscience, belief and observance of political doctrines,” as well as freedom of expression, assembly and association, stating that “Parliament shall pass no law and no organ of the State shall take any action which abrogates, abridges or infringes those rights” (Section 13, Subsections 2 and 3).

Section 17 provides further detail on the protections afforded to “freedom of religion” stating:

“Every person shall have the right to freedom of religion including the freedom to change his religion and the right, either alone or in community with others and both in public and in private, to manifest and propagate his religion in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

In using this terminology, the right granted under the Constitution fails to directly recognize non-religious beliefs. No further reference to freedom of thought, conscience or belief is detailed in the Constitution beyond the references made in Section 13.

Public officials are required to declare an oath before God on taking office.

Although there is no designated state religion, and people in the country are free to publicly and privately worship in any religion of their choosing, according to the Jamaica Tourist Board,

“Christianity is an inextricable part of Jamaica’s society that has helped to shape the lives of our people. It is no wonder over 60% of the population has identified themselves as devoted Christians. In fact, several of the island’s educational institutions and charities are run by religious organizations.“4https://www.visitjamaica.com/feel-the-vibe/people/faith/

In addition, some African-based religious practices (obeah) are outlawed under colonial-era laws.5https://moj.gov.jm/sites/default/files/laws/The%20Obeah%20Act.pdf However, according to the US Office of International Religious Freedom , such laws are not enforced and there does not appear to be any intention to repeal such laws in the near future.6https://www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/1287081/download

It is not necessary for religious groups to register with the government, however if they do, they receive special privileges. These include tax exemptions, and the right for members of the clergy to visit worshippers of their religion while incarcerated.7https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-report-on-international-religious-freedom/jamaica

Christianity in Politics and Public Life

While there is no single established church or state religion, the Jamaican State formally recognizes some churches through legislation. For example the Moravian Church in Jamaica is formally established under an Act of Parliament;8http://www.jamaicamoravian.org/about-2/our-story/ and in 2013 another Act of Parliament was passed to formally establish the Church of Haile Selassie I.9http://japarliament.gov.jm/attachments/341_The%20Church%20of%20Haile%20Selassie%20I%20(Incorporation%20and%20Vesting)%20Act,%202013.pdf There is also official symbolic deference to religion, for example the Jamaican National Anthem contains explicit Christian references – despite the significant non-Christian and non-believer communities identified above.10https://jis.gov.jm/information/anthem-pledge/

Christianity is further systematically privileged in public life, with Jamaican leaders openly affirming their belief in the Christian god in their public capacity. For example there is the annual National Leadership Prayer Breakfast, which is usually attended by both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition as well as several Members of Parliament.11https://jis.gov.jm/pod/national-leadership-prayer-breakfast/ This public affirmation of Christianity is institutional and occurs at all levels of government. For example it is the usual practice at many government departments and agencies to open important meetings and other proceedings with prayer. No other religion enjoys these privileges in Jamaica.

Finally, the security forces of the State, which includes the Jamaica Constabulary Force and the Jamaica Defence Force, maintain chaplains.

Education and children’s rights

Section 17 of the Constitution guarantees the right of each religious body or group to provide religious instruction to persons of the same belief, while also guaranteeing the student’s right not to be “required to receive religious instruction, or to take part in or attend any religious ceremony or observance, which relates to a religion or religious body or denomination other than his own.”

A significant number of public schools in Jamaica are owned and/or operated by churches, who are provided with state subsidies, but required to abide by rules laid down by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information. According to the US State Department, the public school curriculum includes nondenominational religious education, which focuses on the historical role of religion in society and philosophical thought and includes group visits to Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and Hindu houses of worship. Students may not opt out of religious education, but religious devotion or practice during school hours is optional.12https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-report-on-international-religious-freedom/jamaica/#:~:text=Policy%20and%20Engagement-,Executive%20Summary,but%20it%20is%20not%20enforced

However, a review of publicly available documents relating to the curriculum in primary schools suggests that religion is perceived and taught as fundamental to the shaping of identity and guiding one’s understanding of the meaning and purpose of life. It is incorporated as a lens through which all subjects are taught, in a holistic approach to primary education. As such, emphasis is “placed on building future citizens with a focus on morals, values, principles, attitudes, integrity, heritage & culture through the curriculum standards and in the teaching of Religious Education, Civics and Social Studies.”13https://pep.moey.gov.jm/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/MOE-NSC-GRADE-1-Int.-Studies-Language-Math-Revised-Nov-2019.pdf

While the religious education content more generally appears to be open to exploring the variety of religious groups’ beliefs in Jamaica, no attention appears to be paid to the non-religious; instead, students may be asked to compose messages to religious groups “expressing appreciation for the work they do” or “create a short prayer to the Creator.” Further, while exploring how to take care of their bodies, guidance suggests that teachers should draw upon the Bible for stories around healthy eating and discuss how healthy eating “can help us give service to others and worship God.”

The grade 4 curriculum14https://pep.moey.gov.jm/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Grade-4-Enrichment-Window-FINAL-2018.10.11.pdf states:

“Religious Education serves as the flagship subject championing and promoting the teaching of religious thinking skills, renowned civic virtues and moral values such as integrity, responsibility, respect, justice, honesty and equality. The aforementioned virtues and values, among others, are utilized to shape the habits and hearts of students, teaching them what it means to be good and virtuous citizens of the highest moral integrity.

[…]Religion has been an integral part of people’s everyday lives; students are therefore helped to mature in relation to their own patterns of beliefs and behaviours, culture and laws as well as those of others. As such, Religious Education accommodates a broadened and balanced perspective of worldwide and Caribbean religions that helps students to understand more clearly how the beliefs and practices of these groups have affected, shaped and influenced everyday life and culture thereby, enhancing students’ social identities and transforming our world so that we can live and work together in harmony.”

Regulations mandate that religious schools receiving public funding must admit students of all faiths and adhere to ministry standards. Religious schools are not subject to any special restrictions. Most religious schools are affiliated with Catholic or Protestant churches. The Islamic Council of Jamaica runs four schools.15https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-report-on-international-religious-freedom/jamaica/#:~:text=Policy%20and%20Engagement-,Executive%20Summary,but%20it%20is%20not%20enforced

Family, community and society

The dominant influence of Christianity in public life is often keenly felt on human rights issues.

Abortion

Abortion remains a crime in Jamaica, punishable by life imprisonment, with or without hard labor. Anyone giving advice about abortion or assisting in the procedure can face up to three years in prison.16https://moj.gov.jm/sites/default/files/laws/The%20Offences%20Against%20the%20Person%20Act.pdf These laws are rarely enforced, according to Jamaican pro-choice activists, but are a constant source of fear for those seeking to end their unwanted pregnancies.17https://www.vice.com/en/article/bvzg5d/jamaica-could-finally-decriminalize-abortion Doctors have been arrested sporadically and sent to jail over the past ten years for providing abortions.18https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jul/13/doctor-arrested-illegal-abortion-jamaica

Pro-abortion activists have reportedly been galvanized by the decriminalization of abortion in Argentina in December 2020, leading to increased debate on the issue.19https://www.reuters.com/article/jamaica-abortion-stories-idUSL8N2KG6NP Some activists are reported to have carried signs reading “no religion in my womb.”20https://www.vice.com/en/article/bvzg5d/jamaica-could-finally-decriminalize-abortion

Pro-choice legislators are currently working on a draft amendment to the law. However, religious leaders remain firmly opposed to abortion. A petition rejecting a conscience vote by the Love March Movement, a Christian youth group, has attracted around 13,000 signatures; others have organized mass gatherings to protest mid-pandemic.21https://www.reuters.com/article/jamaica-abortion-stories-idUSL8N2KG6NP

Marriage

Under the Constitution, “No form of marriage or other relationship referred to in subsection (1), other than the voluntary union of one man and one woman may be contracted or legally recognized in Jamaica” (Section 18). As such, same-sex marriages are not recognized.

Marriage is governed according to the Marriage (Amendment) Act (1979).22https://moj.gov.jm/sites/default/files/laws/Marriage%20Act_1.pdf However, those who are Hindu or Muslim are subject to the respective Marriage Act specific to their belief group.23Hindu Marriage Act, 1957: https://moj.gov.jm/laws/hindu-marriage-act; Muslim Marriage Act, 1957:https://moj.gov.jm/laws/muslim-marriage-act

The minimum age for marriage depends on the law applied. Under the Hindu and Muslim marriage acts, the legal age of both boys and girls is 16. The Marriage (Amendment) Act stipulates that the minimum age for marriage is 18, unless the consent of the father is obtained if the child is aged 16 years or over.

Harmful practices against widows are prohibited through the provisions of the Marriage (Deceased Wife’s Sister or Brother’s Widow) Act 1914, which explicitly states that marriages to the deceased wife’s sister, or brother’s widow, will be deemed void.24http://www.sistersforchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/docs/01-SFC-DB-FILES/491-SIGI-Jamaica.pdf

Currently Jamaica does not recognize rape within marriage, unless the spouses are separated,25https://moj.gov.jm/sites/default/files/laws/Sexual%20Offences%20Act.pdf although there have been moves to widen the definition to protect women within marriage. Religious groups have been at the forefront of protests against any change to the law.26http://jamaicahumanistsociety.org/a-secular-humanist-take-on-the-marital-rape-law/ In 2020, the Senate approved a report from a joint select committee that deliberated on the Sexual Offences Act and related statutes, paving the way for legal reform.27https://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/lead-stories/20200711/marital-rape-law-looms-senate-approves-report-sexual-offences-act-and

LGBTI+ rights

Jamaica still outlaws sex between men, punishable by up to 10 years hard labour through the colonial-era Offences Against the Person Act.28https://moj.gov.jm/sites/default/files/laws/The%20Offences%20Against%20the%20Person%20Act.pdf In February 2021, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) called on Jamaica to repeal all laws prohibiting consensual same-sex conduct.29https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/17/human-rights-body-calls-repeal-jamaicas-anti-lgbt-laws The IACHR argued that Jamaica’s laws violate rights to privacy and equal protection under the convention, finding that discriminatory legislation contributes to violence by members of the public.

Some analysts consider Jamaica one of the most homophobic countries on earth. Church groups, including representatives from the largest denomination “the Church of God”, have organized rallies against attempts to decriminalize homosexuality, although the government has thus far made no attempts to repeal the anti-LGBTI+ laws.30http://jamaicahumanistsociety.org/jamaicans-for-secular-humanism-responds-to-christian-protest-against-equality/

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedom of expression is guaranteed under the Constitution and generally upheld in practice.31https://rsf.org/en/jamaica

Repeal of ‘blasphemous’ libel

Until 2013, blasphemous libel was prohibited under the Libel and Slander Act (1973)32https://moj.gov.jm/sites/default/files/laws/Libel%20and%20Slander%20Act.pdf, however it was unclear if criminal sanctions could be applied.33https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2020%20Blasphemy%20Enforcement%20Report%20_final_0.pdf

In 2008, the report of a government-committee recommended changes to Jamaica’s Defamation Laws, including:

“To abolish the common law offences of criminal libel including blasphemous, obscene and seditious libel.”34http://pressassociationjamaica.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/03.-Justice-Hugh-Small-Chaired-Committee-Report-on-Review-of-Defamation-Laws-for-Hon-Bruce-Goldin.pdf

In 2011, the House of Representatives approved a further report from a joint select committee on this review, but it does not appear to have been followed through and “blasphemous” libel remains on statute.35https://end-blasphemy-laws.org/countries/americas/jamaica/

In 2013, the Jamaican Parliament approved a bill fully abolishing the offence of criminal defamation, and with it blasphemous libel. The 2013 Defamation Act36https://moj.gov.jm/sites/default/files/The%20Defamation%20Act%20%282013%29.pdf replaces both the 19th-century Libel and Slander Act and the 1963 Defamation Act.37https://ipi.media/jamaica-decriminalises-defamation/

References

References
1, 4 https://www.visitjamaica.com/feel-the-vibe/people/faith/
2, 12, 15 https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-report-on-international-religious-freedom/jamaica/#:~:text=Policy%20and%20Engagement-,Executive%20Summary,but%20it%20is%20not%20enforced
3 https://moj.gov.jm/sites/default/files/laws/Ja%20%28Constitution%29%20Order%20in%20Council%201962.pdf
5 https://moj.gov.jm/sites/default/files/laws/The%20Obeah%20Act.pdf
6 https://www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/1287081/download
7 https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-report-on-international-religious-freedom/jamaica
8 http://www.jamaicamoravian.org/about-2/our-story/
9 http://japarliament.gov.jm/attachments/341_The%20Church%20of%20Haile%20Selassie%20I%20(Incorporation%20and%20Vesting)%20Act,%202013.pdf
10 https://jis.gov.jm/information/anthem-pledge/
11 https://jis.gov.jm/pod/national-leadership-prayer-breakfast/
13 https://pep.moey.gov.jm/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/MOE-NSC-GRADE-1-Int.-Studies-Language-Math-Revised-Nov-2019.pdf
14 https://pep.moey.gov.jm/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Grade-4-Enrichment-Window-FINAL-2018.10.11.pdf
16, 28 https://moj.gov.jm/sites/default/files/laws/The%20Offences%20Against%20the%20Person%20Act.pdf
17, 20 https://www.vice.com/en/article/bvzg5d/jamaica-could-finally-decriminalize-abortion
18 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jul/13/doctor-arrested-illegal-abortion-jamaica
19, 21 https://www.reuters.com/article/jamaica-abortion-stories-idUSL8N2KG6NP
22 https://moj.gov.jm/sites/default/files/laws/Marriage%20Act_1.pdf
23 Hindu Marriage Act, 1957: https://moj.gov.jm/laws/hindu-marriage-act; Muslim Marriage Act, 1957:https://moj.gov.jm/laws/muslim-marriage-act
24 http://www.sistersforchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/docs/01-SFC-DB-FILES/491-SIGI-Jamaica.pdf
25 https://moj.gov.jm/sites/default/files/laws/Sexual%20Offences%20Act.pdf
26 http://jamaicahumanistsociety.org/a-secular-humanist-take-on-the-marital-rape-law/
27 https://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/lead-stories/20200711/marital-rape-law-looms-senate-approves-report-sexual-offences-act-and
29 https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/17/human-rights-body-calls-repeal-jamaicas-anti-lgbt-laws
30 http://jamaicahumanistsociety.org/jamaicans-for-secular-humanism-responds-to-christian-protest-against-equality/
31 https://rsf.org/en/jamaica
32 https://moj.gov.jm/sites/default/files/laws/Libel%20and%20Slander%20Act.pdf
33 https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2020%20Blasphemy%20Enforcement%20Report%20_final_0.pdf
34 http://pressassociationjamaica.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/03.-Justice-Hugh-Small-Chaired-Committee-Report-on-Review-of-Defamation-Laws-for-Hon-Bruce-Goldin.pdf
35 https://end-blasphemy-laws.org/countries/americas/jamaica/
36 https://moj.gov.jm/sites/default/files/The%20Defamation%20Act%20%282013%29.pdf
37 https://ipi.media/jamaica-decriminalises-defamation/

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