Last Updated 8 October 2021

The Plurinational State of Bolivia is a landlocked country and a democratic republic located in South America.

In 2006, the assumption of power of the first indigenous president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, was followed by a review of the role of the Catholic church in the country and its influence on government. In 2009, this culminated in the adoption of a new Constitution following a national referendum, which declared the country a secular State. The Catholic Church nevertheless remains a prominent force in State politics.1

Around 76.8% of the population identifies as Roman Catholic, 16% as Protestant (including evangelical Protestant and Pentecostal groups). Approximately 5% identify as non-believers.2 Amongst the indigenous population, who constitute around 41% of the population, formal Catholicism is mixed with an attachment to traditional beliefs and rituals.3

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Constitution and government

Secular reforms under the Morales government

The Constitution and other laws and policies protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as freedom of opinion and expression.

In 2009, Bolivia voted in a referendum to approve a new secular Constitution that removed Catholicism as the official state religion. The 2009 Constitution provides a number of guarantees with respect to the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Article 4 states that: “the State respects and guarantees freedom of religion and spiritual beliefs according to their view of the world. The State is independent of religion.” Article 21 states that all Bolivians have the right “To freedom of belief, spirituality, religion and cult, expressed individually or collectively, in public and in private, for legal purposes.”4 Spanish:

Despite the separation between religion and State guaranteed by Article 4, the Catholic Church is granted a number of prerogatives and privileges by the State, including exemptions from income, real estate and property taxes This is due to a number of formal agreements between the Holy See and the state of Bolivia (the first of which was signed in 1957).5

Alongside seeing in the new secular Constitution in 2009, the governemnt also signed an agreement, the Convenio Marco de Cooperación Interinstitucional (Agreement on Inter-Institutional Cooperation) with the Catholic Church in Bolivia.6 According to the civil society organization, Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir-Bolivia (Catholics for the Right to Decide-Bolivia), the agreement strengthened the status of the church in the country, “which continues to act with a low profile in all aspects of social and political life in the country.” The Church’s ties to business sectors with large economic capacity also have been strengthened by the agreement, according to Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir-Bolivia, “especially in the eastern region, which is the centre of the opposition to the current social and political process.”7

President Morales identifies as a Catholic, but has not shied away from criticizing the Catholic Church, associating it with the Spanish colonization of Latin America in the 16th century. He is a defender of indigenous rights and beliefs, describing his presidency as the “decolonization” of Bolivia. Morales’ secular reforms have angered and spurred a counter-reaction from religious right-wing groups. Bolivia’s interim president Jeanine Áñez, who took over from Morales after he fled following accusations of election tampering in 2019, notably chose to invoke the Bible in her first public appearance, declaring God as the source of political power.8

In November 2020, Morales returned to power after his party won a re-run of the disputed 2019 election.9

Registration and tax requirements

The registration of religious and belief groups is highly regulated. Religious organizations must fulfill a number of requirements in order to register with the government, including the submission of notarised legal documents, information on members and details on the organizations finances and other activities. Pursuant to a concordat with the Holy See, the Catholic Church is exempt from these registration requirements.

The government is capable of revoking a spiritual or religious organizations operating license “if the organization fails to produce an annual report of activities for more than two consecutive years; does not comply with its stated objectives; carries out activities different from those established in its statute; or carries out activities contrary to the country’s constitution, laws, morality, or ‘good customs.’”10 Religious and spiritual organizations are required to pay taxes.11

Education and children’s rights

Part of the Morales government’s secular reform process involved changes to the education curriculum, including the requirement that schools be secular.12

Article 86 of the Constitution states that:

“Freedom of thought, faith and religious education, as well as the spirituality of the nations and the rural native indigenous peoples, shall be recognized and guaranteed in the educational centers. Mutual respect and coexistence among persons of diverse religions shall be promoted, without dogmatic imposition. There shall be no discrimination on the basis of religious choice with respect to the acceptance and permanence of students in these centers.”

By law, religion classes are optional and the school curriculum should teach ethics courses that promote religious tolerance. All teachers, including those in private religious schools, must receive their training in government-run academies.13

Family, community and society

Gender equality and reproductive rights

Abortion is criminalized in Bolivia except when the life or health of the woman or girl is at risk or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, and very few women have access to contraception. Indigenous and poorer women are disproportionately affected by poor maternal and reproductive health outcomes.14

At the end of 2017, Bolivia issued a newly revised Criminal Code expanding the grounds for abortion before the eighth week of pregnancy to a broader range of circumstances. However, the reform was subject to large protests from anti-choice groups throughout the country. One of the key driving forces behind the protests was the Platform for Life and Family (Plataforma por la Vida y Familia),15 whose president described its work as “necessary to defend the four principles postulated by Benedict XVI, since they are completely threatened in the country.16 Also backing the call to repeal the new law was the Catholic Church17 and Internatioanal lobbying groups such as the Catholic anti-abortion group, Human Life International and the USA based Christian advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom International.18Deborah M. Piroch, Human Life International, “Battling Abortion in Bolivia,” 10th October 2017,; Submission to the 34 th Session of the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review Working Group, ADF International (2019), As a consequence of the backash, in January 2018, the Code was repealed in its entirety.

LGBTI+ rights

Bolivia’s Constitution and laws are progressive on the subject of LGBTI+ rights. Article 14 bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Article 58 recognizes the right of children to express themselves in a gender identity of their choice as a right “inherent to their development”.19

In 2016, a Gender Identity Law20In Spanish:; was approved allowing transgender individuals to change their gender on official documents, and in 2019 Bolivia’s legislature made further progress by passing a law that criminalized hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Despite these legal gains, Bolivia remains a relatively conservative country and the public has been resistant to the idea of full marriage equality.21 The Constitution limits marriage to between a man and a woman. In December 2020, after a two year legal battle, a court in La Paz granted two men the right to register a civil union, which activists hope will set a precedent for other LGBTI+ couples to access recognition.22

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

The constitution guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the press. However, in a highly polarized political environment, some journalists report intimidation by opponents, criminals, and the ruling party.

Under Morales’ government, Front Line Defenders reported that activists “who engage on environmental issues have been subjected to intimidation, threats, surveillance, and criminalisation”, that “the defence of indigenous peoples’ rights in the face of development projects is especially stigmatised by the Bolivian government” and that judicial harassment against lawyers who work on environmental and indigenous issues is common.23

During the interim presidency of Jeanine Áñez, the government initiated a violent military crackdown against government protesters, journalists and those guilty of a broadly defined offence of “sedition”, resulting in at least 30 deaths.24

Senator Áñez, whose interim presidency was associated with a resurgence of Christian nationalism, also expressed anti-indigenous views publicly and on Twitter, writing “I dream of a Bolivia without satanic indigenous rituals, the city isn’t made for Indians, they need to go back to the countryside!”25 During her tenure, there was a wave of anti-indigenous sentiment and violence, some involving members of the church. For instance, a hardline pastor reportedly attacked traditional indigenous beliefs as evidence of “witchcraft” and claimed that “[Under Morales] we were turning into a backwards nation – people wanted to legalize abortion, to legalize gay marriage, they wanted to legalize the satanistas [satanists]!”26


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18 Deborah M. Piroch, Human Life International, “Battling Abortion in Bolivia,” 10th October 2017,; Submission to the 34 th Session of the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review Working Group, ADF International (2019),
20 In Spanish:;

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