Last Updated 30 November 2020

The Federative Republic of Brazil is a secular and democratic sovereign state in South America with a population of around 202 million. Often described as an emerging world power, it is the sixth largest country in the world by population and fifth by area, and one of just 17 countries worldwide classed as “megadiverse” due to its abundant natural resources and wildlife.1 Aside from having the world’s largest Catholic population (126 million people, or 64.6% of the population), Brazil also appears as one of the top ten most religious countries in the world. According to the 2012 Gallup Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism, 85% of Brazilians describe themselves as religious. There is also a relatively large non-religious community that makes up around 8% of the population, with the small remainder split between indigenous spiritism, Islam and Judaism.

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Constitution and government

The preamble to the Brazilian Constitution2 declares that society shall be founded “under the protection of God”. Despite this and the country’s high level of religiosity, Article 5 of the constitution enshrines the freedoms of religion, conscience, belief, and expression.

Section 5, Article 5 states: “Freedom of conscience and of belief is inviolable, the free exercise of religious sects being ensured and, under the terms of the law, the protection of places of worship and their rites being guaranteed”, while Section 7 of Article 5 affirms that “expression of intellectual, scientific, and communications activities is free, independently of censorship or license”.

There is no official state religion. Article 19 of the Constitution outlines the secular nature of the state which separates church and state, and prohibits the government to “establish religious sects or churches, subsidize them, hinder their activities or maintain relationships of dependence or alliance with them or their representatives”.

However, the election of Jair Bolsonaro in October 2018 highlighted the role of religion in Brazilian politics. Throughout his election campaign, Bolsonaro presented himself as the defender of traditional Christian moral values with the slogan “Brazil above everything, God above everyone.” His election has ensured that Brazil is governed by a Christian-extreme-right authoritarian agenda that aims to hegemonize Brazilian politics.3

During his campaign, Bolsonaro focused on Christianity, arguing for obligatory crucifixes and the provision of Bibles in legislative buildings. Bolsonaro has the support of many among the rising and powerful Brazilian Evangelical community, who regard him as “the answer to their prayers”

Far-right threat

Jair Bolsonaro offers an ultra-conservative agenda, his speeches filled with openly and harsh misogynistic, racist, anti-LGBTI+ and anti-democratic views.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, people gathered in Brazil’s capital city in order to rally against quarantine, in support of a military coup against the legislature and judiciary. Bolsonaro has insisted that these protests are “spontaneous movements” by supporters, but the Supreme Court has commenced an investigation into their origin. Multiple members of Congress in addition to the president are suspected of arranging the events.

There are fears that Brazil is accelerating towards another dictatorship similar to the military one that ruled between 1964 to 1985.5 Such concerns are exacerbated by the fact that army officers hold no fewer than 325 posts in the federal administration.6 poder/2019/10/bolsonaro-amplia-presenca-de-militares-em-30-orgaos- shtml In addition, the president has consistently sought to shield police and military officials from wrongdoing.7;

Education and children’s rights

Religious education is provided in all schools, but must be optional, as protected by Article 210 in the Constitution. Even though the enrolment in religious education is optional, the classes are conducted during regular school hours which has been found in a recent Supreme Court decision to be lawful.8Weingartner Neto J. (2020) ‘Secular State and Religious Education in Public Schools: The Brazilian Case’. In: Souza Alves R. (eds) Latin American Perspectives on Law and Religion. Law and Religion in a Global Context, vol 3

The effect that Bolsonaro’s choice of new education minister will have on the schooling system remains to be seen. Appointed in July 2020, Brazil’s new minister for education is a pastor at an Evangelical church in Sao Paulo. Religious groups have welcomed the new post-holder, stating that the education ministry is key to increasing Christian values in Brazil and reducing what they contend to be ‘leftist’ influence in the school system.9

Family, community and society

Since his election, President Bolsonaro has consistently invoked an anti-human-rights rhetoric, which is also being manifested in concrete measures that are being taken to threaten and violate the human rights of all those living in Brazil.10

LGBTI+ rights

Although homosexuality is not criminalised in Brazil,11 LGBTI+ individuals still face social stigma and harassment.12 The country is also one of the world’s most dangerous for gay and trans people.13 documented the murder of 105 transgender individuals over the course of 2019.14

Throughout 2016-2018, efforts to stage Jo Clifford’s The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven – a play in which Jesus is re-imagined as a transgender woman who tells Biblical stories of tolerance – were repeatedly opposed and even cancelled following the intervention of members of the Evangelical and Catholic church.15;

Most of the progress made in LGBTI+ rights has been through the courts, rather than Congress. In recent years, Brazil’s Supreme Court has handed down countless rulings in favour of LGBTI+ rights.16; In June 2019, the Supreme Court voted to criminalise homophobia and transphobia.17 President Bolsonaro reportedly condemned their judgement.18

In 2020, the Supreme Court have also struck down municipal provisions in two separate states that prohibited relating to educational policies and materials addressing “gender ideology”. The court ruled that municipalities cannot override national education plans and also found that the municipal bans violated the rights to equality, education, and freedom of expression. According to Human Rights Watch, the term “gender ideology” is used by far-right movements and politicians to denote “an ill-defined gay and feminist conspiracy to wreak havoc on traditional values”.19

Women’s rights

Violence against women has long been an issue in Brazil.20;; An average of five women are murdered by their partners each day, according to Deutsche Welle.21 However, despite “the innumerable policies and laws toward women” claimed to have been implemented by the Bolsonaro administration by Family, Women and Human Rights Minister Damares Alves, a conservative Evangelical pastor, funding for projects to protect women has dried up; what budget that has been made available to projects remains, largely, unspent.22

Since lockdown restrictions were imposed by some state and municipal authorities across Brazil in mid-March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, judges who specialise in gender-based violence estimate that reported cases have doubled. Activists on the ground believe that the reported figures represent only a fraction of the actual number.23

Abortion is legal only in cases of rape, incest, to save a woman’s life, and, since 2012, in the case of anencephaly — a fatal condition in which infants are born without parts of the brain or skull. Despite Brazil’s severe legislation 500,000 illegal abortions are estimated to occur every year among women aged 18–39 years, which equates to one in five women, with half of these abortions resulting in emergency room visits due to complications. More than 200 women are reported to die each year due to illegal abortions.24 Those convicted of having an illegal abortion face penalties of up to three years in prison, while those who conduct them face up to four years in prison.25;;

In August 2020, a 10-year-old girl who had been raped by her uncle was forced to fly to a hospital 900 miles away after religious extremists and far-right anti-abortion activists and politicians sought to prevent her from entering the hospital to access an abortion to which she was legally entitled. The protests are thought to have been organised by a former staffer of the incumbent Family, Women and Human Rights Minister, Damares Alves.26

According to Reporters Without Borders, the staff of AzMina – a Brazilian online newspaper run by women journalists fighting for gender equality – were subjected to a slew of threats and harassment in September 2018 after they published a report entitled, “How to abort safely”.27;

Indigenous peoples’ rights

More than 800,000 indigenous people live in 505 demarcated indigenous territories across Brazil – which cover  12.5% of land.28 Most are located in the Amazon region and some people live in total isolation.

The Bolsonaro administration has repeatedly questioned the existence of their protected reserves, which are rights guaranteed in the country’s constitution. Bolsonaro himself is known to favour development over conservation, and has argued that indigenous peoples’ territories are too big in relation to the number of people who live there.29

In July 2019, illegal gold-miners killed a leader of the Wajãpi community after they invaded a village in Amapá state.30

In January 2020, it was reported that the Association of Indigenous Peoples planned to sue President Bolsonaro for racism after he reportedly stated that “The Indian is gradually evolving; more and more they are human being like us“.31;

Environmental degradation

Deforestation recorded on Indigenous Lands in the Amazon between 1 August 2018 and 31 June 2019 was 65% higher than over the previous period representing a 4% loss in total Amazonian biomass.32

During the course of 2019, satellite imaging recorded almost 90,000 fires in the Amazon, 30% more than in 2018. Over a 10-year period, 2019 was the fourth highest year for number of fires. According to experts, the fires in the Amazon are caused primarily by people burning to clear an area of forest that has recently been felled.33 informa-o-inpe.ghtml;

According to Global Witness, 24 land and environmental rights defenders were killed in Brazil in 2019.34

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Free expression organisations have repeatedly expressed concern regarding systematic violations of freedom of expression in the country, attacks on the press, censorship of artistic and cultural freedom, stifling of social participation spaces and access to public information.35;;

Media freedom

The press is private and pluralistic with dozens of daily newspapers, television and radio stations across the country. However, there have been numerous reports of attacks on journalists in Brazil. The most recent being that of Alex Braga on 23 July 2020. Braga hosts the nightly news show ‘Amazonas Diário,’ on which he frequently covers corruption allegations involving local authorities and private companies. He has since reported that he had received threats from politicians in the weeks leading up to the attack.36

In August 2020, President Bolsonaro told a reporter, “I want to punch you in the face,” after the reporter asked about thousands of dollars that were transferred into a bank account of the president’s wife by a former aide who is now the target of a corruption probe.37

Access to information during COVID-19

A group of civil society organisations have brought charges against the Brazilian Federal Government at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), alleging systematic violation of access to information and transparency during the COVID-19 pandemic.38

Meanwhile, ARTICLE19 Brazil has recorded 82 attacks against journalists and the media.39 In 72% of cases, members of the government were found to be directly responsible. This includes the president who held a press conference confirming that he had tested positive for COVID-19 without wearing a mask, putting the journalists in attendance at direct risk.

Proposed ‘Disinformation’ Bill

In 2020, Bill 2630/2020 Law on Freedom, Responsibility and Transparency in the Internet – a bill aimed at tackling disinformation in Brazil – passed through the Senate in exceptional conditions because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Civil society organisations have raised concerns that the bill violates international standards of freedom of expression and is being rushed through parliament without sufficient and proper debate, ignoring the wider implications of the bill.40;


The Brazilian Penal Code contains a de facto blasphemy law which renders “crimes against religious feeling” a punishable offense. Article 208 states that to “mock someone publicly, by reason of belief or religious function; prevent or disrupt ceremony or practice of religious worship; publicly vilify [an] act or object of religious worship: Penalty – detention of one month to one year or a fine”. Previously, this law does not appear to have been used to prohibit or obstruct the criticism of religion. However, in January 2020, a Brazilian judge ordered Netflix to remove a Christmas special that some called blasphemous for depicting Jesus as a gay man. The ruling by Rio de Janeiro judge Benedict Abicair was made in response to petitions by a Brazilian Catholic organization that claimed the ‘honor of millions of Catholics’ was wounded by the airing of ‘The First Temptation of Christ’.41 The decision was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court.42


6 poder/2019/10/bolsonaro-amplia-presenca-de-militares-em-30-orgaos- shtml
8 Weingartner Neto J. (2020) ‘Secular State and Religious Education in Public Schools: The Brazilian Case’. In: Souza Alves R. (eds) Latin American Perspectives on Law and Religion. Law and Religion in a Global Context, vol 3
28, 32
33 informa-o-inpe.ghtml;

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