Last Updated 13 October 2020

Panama is situated on the isthmus connecting Central America and South America. The country obtained its independence from Spain in 1821 and from Colombia in 1903. Panama is a unitary state and a presidential representative democratic republic. It has an elected two-chamber Congress and an elected president acting as head of state. According to the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INEC), Panama has a population of 4,278,500 inhabitants.1 

According to the 2009 National Survey of Sexual Reproductive Health (ENASSER) among the population aged 15 and older, 72.3% identify as Catholic, 15.4% identify as Christian (non-Catholic) while only 4.6% practice another religion. 7.8% of people indicated that they do not belong to any religion. Bocas del Toro province contains the highest percentage of individuals not belonging to any religion with 45.7%.2

Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

Panama is a secular, non-denominational state insofar as it declares its sovereignty emanates from the people. The 1972 Constitution3 does not proclaim an official religion although the preamble includes an invocation to the almighty God.

The Constitution and other laws and policies protect freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Meanwhile, Article 19 of the Constitution forbids privileges or discrimination based on race, birth, social class, sex, religion, or political ideas. In spite of the above, Catholicism has certain state-sanctioned advantages over other religions. Freedom of assembly and association are protected by law and respected in practice.

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, provided that “Christian morality and public order” are respected, recognizing Catholicism as “the religion of the majority” of citizens (Article 35).

ther articles recognize that religious associations have the legal capacity to administer their assets within the limits indicated by the Law. (Article 36); and that ministers of religious faiths may only hold public offices that are related to social assistance, education, or scientific research (Article 45).

The Constitution also prohibits the formation of political parties based on sex, race, religion, or any other party that “seek to destroy the democratic form of government” (Article 139); and it allows public officials, who do not profess religious beliefs, to avoid the invocation to God during the oath when taking office (Article 181).

Recent attempts to amend the Constitution to remove the recognition of Catholicism as the religion of the majority of Panamanians and add the word ‘secular’ to Article 1 of the Constitution have thus far been unsuccessful.4;

Catholic privilege

It is estimated that during the presidency of Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014), the government allocated approximately four million dollars to the Catholic church.5 This amount increased during the government of Juan Carlos Varela (2014-2019). According to the newspaper El Siglo, Varela allocated more than $25 million to cover expenses for religious affairs, most of them Catholic, including a donation of two lots of land valued at 2.7 million dollars in 2016.6

State Registry of Other Religious Organizations

The Ministry of Government and Justice is in charge of granting legal status and oversight of non-profit associations and foundations of private interest, including churches, congregations, religious communities or associations, federations, and any others that are not related to sports, agriculture, cooperatives, and labor.7

Education and children’s rights

According to Article 94 of the Constitution:

“Freedom of education is guaranteed, and the right to create private schools, subject to law, is recognized. The State has the power to intervene in the teachings of private educational establishments in order that national and social purposes of the culture, as well as the intellectual, moral, civic, and physical formation of students, be fulfilled.

Public education is that taught in official public schools and private education, that taught in private schools.

Educational institutions, whether public or private, are open to all students without distinction of race, social position, political ideology, religion, or the nature of the relationship of the student’s parents or guardians.”

Meanwhile, Article 107 states:

“The Catholic religion shall be taught in public schools, but, upon the requests of parents or guardians, certain students shall not be obliged to attend religion classes, nor to participate in religious services.”

The curriculum published by the National Directorate of Basic Education of the Ministry of Education for 2020 includes the class ‘Religion, Morals, and Values’ for grades 7th, 8th, and 9th. The class is structured around the ten commandments, and it includes assignments, such as “to identify the religious symbols of Christian marriages accordance with biblical passages.” And to research the “values of three churches or Christian communities in their neighborhoods and report back to class.”

Little information is provided regarding other religious beliefs. Only under one chapter titled ‘Community,’ are students briefly taught about the church, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and others without further development or comparative analysis.8

In 2018, the Ministry of education allowed Muslim students to wear the veil or hijab.9

Sex education

In 2015, a bill on sexual and reproductive health was debated. The initiative aimed to promote sexuality and family planning from a human rights approach. Unfortunately, it did not prosper. The Catholic Church strongly opposed the initiative because “parents have the inalienable right and duty to educate their children.” Other groups, such as “For Our Children” opposed the guidelines alleging it contained a “gender ideology, which encourages boys and girls to assume both gender roles.”10

Family, community and society

Same-sex marriage

Article 26 of the Family Code11 (in Spanish) defines marriage as a voluntary union between a man and a woman.

As of 2020, the Supreme Court of Justice has four cases pending to decide whether the provision of the Family Code is unconstitutional.12; 


Abortion is legal in three circumstances: (1) serious health concerns that put the mother’s life at risk; (2) deformities and malformations of the fetus; and (3) rape. In 2018, experts from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child urged Panama to decriminalize abortion and to adopt a comprehensive strategy of education and sexual and reproductive health.13,de%20madres%20a%20temprana%20edad 

In 2019, Deputy Corina Cano presented a bill seeking to give identity to babies who die in the mother’s womb. Fortunately, organizations such as The Panamanian Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology (SPOG), and the Panamanian Association for Family Planning (Aplafa) rejects the project considering that it violates the women’s rights.14

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Constitution and generally respected in practice. The government has been accused of creating a hostile environment for independent media. According to Reporters Without Borders, journalists covering corruption or critical of government policy can face prosecution, often on accusations of defamation.15


11 (in Spanish)

Support our work

Donate Button with Credit Cards
whois: Andy White WordPress Theme Developer London