Colombia

Last Updated 17 November 2020

The Republic of Colombia is predominantly Christian and majority Roman Catholic. It has suffered a 52-year-long low intensity conflict between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government. Following the Peace Accords of 2016, conflict-related violence and abuses are reported to continue.1https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/colombia

The 1991 Constitution established a presidential representative democratic republic.

According to the US State Department:

“Most of those who blend Catholicism with elements of African animism are Afro-Colombians and reside on the Pacific coast. Most Jews reside in major cities (approximately 70 percent in Bogota), most Muslims on the Caribbean coast, and most adherents of indigenous animistic religions in remote rural areas. A small Taoist community is located in a mountainous region of Santander Department.”2https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/colombia/

 
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

The Constitution3https://www.corteconstitucional.gov.co/inicio/Constitucion%20politica%20de%20Colombia.pdf (in Spanish) protects freedom of conscience (Article 18) and religion (Article 19), as well as the right to the freedoms of expression (Article 20), association (Article 38) and assembly (Article 37). The Constitution specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of religious belief or philosophy (Article 13), and provides that all religious faiths and churches are equal before the law. However, the Roman Catholic Church retains a privileged position with the Colombian state.

Law 133 of 1994, provides a more comprehensive definition of freedom of religion or belief in line with international instruments to which the state is party.4https://www.mininterior.gov.co/filebrowser/download/623909

According to law, and in order to preserve traditional practices, indigenous governors have the right to prohibit the practice of certain religions on indigenous reserves.5https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/colombia/

Registration

Registration of religious groups is undertaken by the Ministry of the Interior. Registered entities may collect funds and receive donations, establish religious education institutions, and perform religious services, excluding marriages. Unregistered entities may still perform religious activities without penalty but may not collect funds or receive donations.6https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/colombia/

Organizations recognized by the Ministry of the Interior are exempted from paying tax.

Historical Roman Catholic privilege

A 1973 concordat7https://cortesuprema.gov.co/corte/wp-content/uploads/subpage/exequatur/Instrumentos%20Internacionales/CONCORDATO%20ENTRE%20LA%20REPUBLICA%20DE%20COLOMBIA%20Y%20LA%20SANTA%20SEDE.pdf (in Spanish); http://www.concordatwatch.eu/topic-38331.834 (in English) between Colombia and the Vatican replaced the clause in the Constitution of 1886 that had established the Catholic Church as the official religion with one stating that “Roman Catholicism is the religion of the great majority of Colombians.” In its own explanation of this change, the Colombian government said that it was not establishing an official religion but merely declaring that it regards the Catholic religion as being of “fundamental importance to the public welfare and the full development of the community.”

Subsequently, Law 133 of 19948https://www.mininterior.gov.co/la-institucion/normatividad/ley-133-de-1994; https://www.mininterior.gov.co/filebrowser/download/623909 mandated separation of church and state, stating that there is no official church or religion, and added that the state “is not atheist or agnostic, nor indifferent to Colombians’ religious sentiment.” Some observers interpret the assertion that the state “is not atheist or agnostic, nor indifferent to Colombians’ religious sentiment” to mean that the state unofficially endorses a privileged position for Catholicism—the predominant “religious sentiment” of Colombians, and in practice there remains Catholic privilege. A 1994 Constitutional Court decision declared unconstitutional any official government reference to a religious characterization of the country. The current Constitution therefore has no reference to a state religious identity, sentiment, or lack thereof.

Decree 354 (1998) serves as an agreement between the state and non-Catholic Christian entities regarding their operations and rights to perform religious rites, such as marriages, and carry out religious instruction.9https://www.mininterior.gov.co/filebrowser/download/623909

Education and children’s rights

The revision of the Concordat between Colombia and the Vatican (027/93) declared Catholic influence on education unconstitutional.10https://www.eltiempo.com/vida/educacion/corte-constitucional-saca-a-la-iglesia-del-sena-37169

Article 68 of the Constitution establishes the right of parents to choose the type of education that their children receive, including religious instruction. However, it also states that no student shall be forced to receive religious education in public schools.11Article 68: “En los establecimientos del Estado ninguna persona podrá ser
obligada a recibir educación religiosa”

Bigotry in schools

Nevertheless, there have been incidents of bigotry in relation to compulsory worship and conservative moral norms in schools.

A district school in Bogotá obliged students to wait for their parents while kneeling down to an image of the Virgin Mary; when a parent asked for his daughter to be exempted from this activity, it resulted in the teacher picking on her and insinuating she would fail the academic year. The child was moved to a separate school.12elespectador.com/noticias/judicial/el-calvario-de-una-familia-atea-articulo-543360

Sergio David Urrego Reyes was a middle school student attending a private Catholic school near Bogotá. In May 2014, due to a photo saved on his phone which depicted him and his boyfriend kissing, he was referred to the School Counselor and told that he was in breach of the school’s regulation that prohibited “obscene, grotesque or vulgar PDA [public displays of affection] on and off school property”. After a parent-teacher conference, where the students were forced to reveal their relationship to their parents, Sergio was expelled. Denying any discrimination against homosexuality, the school informed the parents that Sergio would be allowed back on the condition that he went to therapy every month until graduation. After his boyfriend’s parents sued Sergio for sexual harassment, despite their relationship being consensual, Sergio committed suicide.13elespectador.com/noticias/bogota/pruebas-de-sergio-articulo-515085

The headmistress in this case allegedly referred to Sergio as an “anarchist, atheist and homosexual”. The group Voto Católico (Catholic Vote), one of the conservative groups that defended the school, published a note which read: “The authorities, rather than trying to indict the school headmistress and use the case as an excuse to annihilate Religious Freedom, should be alarmed by the popularity that suicidal ideologies are gaining amongst Colombian teenagers.”14votocatolico.co/2014/09/fue-el-suicidio-de-sergio-urrego-un.html

Family, community and society

Intolerance of atheistic beliefs is reported to be common.

Illiberal religious influence on social issues

Although Colombia has a solid framework for secularism, the secular state is still in the process of consolidation. The state has not been able to completely separate itself from religion, especially from the Catholic Church.

Before 1991, it was illegal to register a religious body that wasn’t part of the Catholic Church until the constitutional change that allowed other groups to become established. Freedom of religion as a result has become increasingly tolerated and the proportion of non-religious people is estimated to be around 11 percent.15https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/colombia/

Pressure from religious groups has increased in the last decade. These groups have been advocating against state secularism, thereby threatening the rights of religious and sexual minorities, women and non-religious individuals.

Religious leaders often use their position as a majority as a legitimizing factor to impose religious dogma on the whole population. In 2011, Monsignor Juan Vicente Córdoba stated:

“Right now I speak in behalf of all Evangelical Christians, all Catholics, Jews and Muslims, that means we’re talking here about 99% of the Colombian population. I would ask the Court to consider not trampling on the culture, principles and religion of a nation.”16youtube.com/watch?v=2p4j81rkAqQ&feature=youtu.be

Abortion and access to certain vaccines are still illegal following push-back from religious fundamentalist groups.17colombiareports.com/big-bang-colombias-health-minister-comes-atheist-closet/

LGBTQ+ rights

LGBTQ+ rights in Colombia have been acknowledged by the Constitutional Court through a gradual process. Although there are no laws discriminating against the LGBTQ+ community, civil servants often reported to prioritize their own religious beliefs over the Colombian Constitution and the principles of non-discrimination.

In 2011, the Constitutional Court of Colombia ruled that same-sex couples should be recognised as a family unit. In November 2015, it ruled that excluding same-sex couples from being able to adopt a child “limited children’s right to a family”.18colombiareports.com/2-million-colombians-sign-petition-ban-adoption-sex-couples/

Senator Viviane Morales, leader of the “Sign for Mom and Dad campaign”, campaigned for a public referendum on overturning the ruling. Two million Colombians signed the petition and 45 senators from Colombia’s Democratic Center and Conservative parties backed the initiative, but the Senate rejected the call.19eltiempo.com/politica/congreso/se-hunde-proyecto-para-convocar-referendo-que-impedia-adopcion-gay-86736

In 2015, the Justice Ministry issued a decree allowing people to revise the gender noted on their identification documents without prior judicial approval. The following year the Constitutional Court upheld the right of same-sex couples to marry.20https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/colombia#49dda6

However, members of the LGBTQ+ community continue to face stigma and violence. According to media reports, at least 63 members of the community were killed in the first eight months of 2020; they included 7 transgender women, 12 gay men, six lesbian women and one transgender man, among others, according to the Colombian Human Rights Ombudsman. The ombudsman has documented a further 388 attacks, both physical and psychological, on members of the community in the same period.21https://www.reuters.com/article/us-colombia-lgbt-idUSKBN26634G

Conversion therapy remains legal, and an estimated 1 in 5 LGBTQ+ individuals undergo such treatment. The figure rises to 1 in 3 if the individual is trans.22https://www.equaldex.com/region/colombia; https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/1-in-5-lgbtq-people-conversion-therapy-colombia/

Abortion

In 2006, Sentence C-355 decriminalized abortion in three exceptional circumstances. Christian civil servants have made an effort to reverse this partial decriminalization.23subaalternativa.com/concejal-ramirez-se-declara-oposicion-la-alcaldia-penalosa/

In March 2020, the Constitutional Court ruled against a petition seeking to narrow the circumstances in which abortions could be conducted. According to AlJazera, “An estimated 400,400 abortions are performed each year in Colombia, according to US-based reproductive rights organisation Guttmacher Institute. In 2018, private abortion provider Profamilia said 16,878 legal abortions were performed legally.”24https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-51715902; https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/3/3/abortion-access-will-not-expand-in-colombia-court-rules It is worth noting that the figures provided by the Guttmacher Institute include both legal and illegal abortions conducted.25https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/unintended-pregnancy-and-induced-abortion-colombia

Marriage

The Constitution, the Concordat with the Holy See, and Decree 354 (1998),26https://www.mininterior.gov.co/filebrowser/download/623909 govern marriage in the country.

Under Article 42 of the Constitution:

“The forms of marriage, the age and qualifications to contract it, the duties and rights of the spouses, their separation and the dissolution of the marriage ties are determined by statute.

Religious marriages shall have civil effects within the limits established by statute.

The civil effects of all marriages may be terminated by divorce in accordance with
civil law.

Also having civil effects are decrees of annulment of religious marriages issued by
the authorities of the respective faiths within the limits established by statute.”

As such, as of 2019, the state recognizes as legally binding marriages performed by the Catholic Church, the Jewish community, and 13 non-Catholic Christian denominations that are signatories to Decree 354 (1998). Members of religious groups that are neither signatories to the agreement nor affiliated with its signatories must marry in a civil ceremony for the state to recognize the marriage27https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/colombia/

Prayer at the Congress and City Councils

Since 2007, Council sessions in Cartagena have begun with a prayer, a practice introduced to: “recover the religious principles of the city”. When seven councillors motioned to remove this obligation, they were overruled by majority vote. In 2015, Miguel Ángel Garcés sued the District for failing to uphold secular principles. When the verdict in his favour was made public, evangelical leaders organized a public protest.28elheraldo.co/politica/de-la-oracion-la-politica-el-rol-de-la-religion-en-lo-publico-260869

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

The Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, and the media are free and diverse. The Constitution also protects the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of association.

Defamation and offences against honor continue to be criminalized and are used by state and non-state actors to silence critical voices.29https://ifex.org/colombian-reporters-face-criminal-defamation-inquiry-for-reporting-on-assault-allegations/; https://ifex.org/colombian-vice-president-files-criminal-defamation-suit-against-journalist/; https://cpj.org/americas/colombia/2020/; https://ifex.org/ifex-alc-media-defence-and-rsf-support-flip-and-journalist-diana-diaz-against-state-harassment-in-colombia/

Reports suggest an increasing pattern of surveillance of journalists.30https://ifex.org/flip-condemns-massive-surveillance-profiling-of-local-and-international-journalists/; https://ifex.org/unnecessary-disproportionate-and-widespread-the-normalization-of-surveillance-in-colombia-and-latin-america/

Violence

However all these rights are restricted in practice by violence. At least 52 journalists have been killed since the mid-1990s, many for reporting on drug trafficking and corruption.31https://cpj.org/data/killed/americas/colombia/?status=Killed&motiveConfirmed%5B%5D=Confirmed&type%5B%5D=Journalist&cc_fips%5B%5D=CO&start_year=1992&end_year=2020&group_by=location Most of the cases remain unsolved, and threats of violence remain commonplace.32https://en.sipiapa.org/notas/1213868-attacks-against-journalists-define-press-freedom-in-colombia

In May 2019, the United Nations expressed its alarm at the murder of an estimated 51 human rights defenders and activists in the first four months of that year and the state’s failure to adequately protect them.33https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/05/1038281

Religious threat to artistic expression

Catholic and Evangelical fundamentalists have attempted to censor music, photography, visual arts and films.

In one pivotal case, in August 2014, the artist María Eugenia Trujillo was scheduled to premiere her exhibition “Concealed Women”, which featured works in which vaginas and other parts of the female body appeared in scenes related to religious imagery. The exhibition was called off by a provisional order provoked by 75 writs claiming that the exhibit breached Article 19 of the Constitution, the article which guarantees freedom of religion. ‘Voto Católico (Catholic Vote)’, which supported the censorship, declared: “This exposition is, intentionally, an act of symbolic violence against the Catholic community and an open insult to God.” The decision to suspend the exhibit was later overturned by the Ministry of Culture.34votocatolico.co/2014/08/por-que-la-exposicion-mujeres-ocultas.html

Highlighted cases

In May 2019, Professor of religion Jaime Augusto Sánchez was attacked because he publicly defined himself as “atheist” and because, during one of his lessons, he discussed with the students various religious worldviews, different from the dominant Roman Catholic one. During a session of the City Council of Lebrija, Santander department, a priest named Eleazar Muñoz stood up and said that Professor Sánchez was not fit to hold his position because “one cannot put in that position a person that does not believe in God, that defines himself an atheist, since one cannot talk about faith if he does not have one, since he lost it. We already live in a difficult society, if we go to schools that teach us anti-values then we are lost”. Officers of the City Council of Lebrija opened an investigation against Professor Sánchez because he had shared with his students a Wikipedia entry on The Satanic Temple, a legally-recognised nontheistic religious group based in the United States of America. At the time of writing, the status of the council’s investigation remains unclear.35https://bogota.ateos.co/2019/05/discriminacion-contra-profesor-ateo-en-lebrija-santander-comunicado-de-prensa/

In April 2017, the Minister of Health and Social Protection of Colombia, Alejandro Gaviria Uribe, released an interview where he publicly came out of the closet as an atheist. In particular, to the question, “Are you an atheist?” Gaviria Uribe replied, “I’m an atheist, but a respectful one”, also defining himself later in the same interview as a “a gentle atheist.”36https://noticias.caracoltv.com/colombia/la-vida-sin-religion-vale-la-pena-minsalud-critica-profetas-politicos-y-redes-sociales This statement generated a backlash against Gaviria Uribe. In particular, another politician, Alejandro Ordóñez, declared that Gaviria Uribe was unfit to cover that position. Since, as a person who did not believe in God, he was “promoting the culture of death”. Thus, he should have resigned for this reason. He added the following rhetorical question, “Would you leave the health and the education of your family in the hands of an atheist?”37https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/alejandro-ordonez-y-alejandro-gaviria-polemica-por-ateismo/523614 Despite such opposition, Gaviria Uribe remained in post until 2018 and is credited with fighting for women’s reproductive rights and regulating the cost of medicine, among other achievements.38https://uniandes.edu.co/en/news/in-the-campus/uncomfortable-truths

In 2016 a Professor of Philosophy, Religion and Ethics, Miguel Lorenzo Trujillo, was harassed by the parents of his students for “perverting the minds of their children”. According to media reports, the parents tried to physically assault the professor and launched a petition to make him resign. The director of the school tried to modify Trujillo’s way of teaching. Finally, thanks to the mediatic and legal intervention of Bogotà Atea, the professor remained in post.39https://www.pulzo.com/nacion/profe-ateo-de-filosofia-alboroto-al-catolico-municipio-de-garzon-PP36971

Testimonials

“Socially, I have found that as an atheist I have been confused with satanists. I believe this has to do with the historic Catholic dogma that those who are not ‘in the light of God’ are effectively in control over the devil.” – Adriaan Alsema, Editor-in-Chief of Colombia Reports, 2019

“Women’s rights, namely in regards to abortion, are still severely hindered by laws that are clearly based on religious belief rather than public health. Considering the dangers of illegal abortion, I believe this is an urgent issue.” – anonymous, 2019

References

1 https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/colombia
2, 5, 6, 15, 27 https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/colombia/
3 https://www.corteconstitucional.gov.co/inicio/Constitucion%20politica%20de%20Colombia.pdf (in Spanish)
4, 9, 26 https://www.mininterior.gov.co/filebrowser/download/623909
7 https://cortesuprema.gov.co/corte/wp-content/uploads/subpage/exequatur/Instrumentos%20Internacionales/CONCORDATO%20ENTRE%20LA%20REPUBLICA%20DE%20COLOMBIA%20Y%20LA%20SANTA%20SEDE.pdf (in Spanish); http://www.concordatwatch.eu/topic-38331.834 (in English)
8 https://www.mininterior.gov.co/la-institucion/normatividad/ley-133-de-1994; https://www.mininterior.gov.co/filebrowser/download/623909
10 https://www.eltiempo.com/vida/educacion/corte-constitucional-saca-a-la-iglesia-del-sena-37169
11 Article 68: “En los establecimientos del Estado ninguna persona podrá ser
obligada a recibir educación religiosa”
12 elespectador.com/noticias/judicial/el-calvario-de-una-familia-atea-articulo-543360
13 elespectador.com/noticias/bogota/pruebas-de-sergio-articulo-515085
14 votocatolico.co/2014/09/fue-el-suicidio-de-sergio-urrego-un.html
16 youtube.com/watch?v=2p4j81rkAqQ&feature=youtu.be
17 colombiareports.com/big-bang-colombias-health-minister-comes-atheist-closet/
18 colombiareports.com/2-million-colombians-sign-petition-ban-adoption-sex-couples/
19 eltiempo.com/politica/congreso/se-hunde-proyecto-para-convocar-referendo-que-impedia-adopcion-gay-86736
20 https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/colombia#49dda6
21 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-colombia-lgbt-idUSKBN26634G
22 https://www.equaldex.com/region/colombia; https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/1-in-5-lgbtq-people-conversion-therapy-colombia/
23 subaalternativa.com/concejal-ramirez-se-declara-oposicion-la-alcaldia-penalosa/
24 https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-51715902; https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/3/3/abortion-access-will-not-expand-in-colombia-court-rules
25 https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/unintended-pregnancy-and-induced-abortion-colombia
28 elheraldo.co/politica/de-la-oracion-la-politica-el-rol-de-la-religion-en-lo-publico-260869
29 https://ifex.org/colombian-reporters-face-criminal-defamation-inquiry-for-reporting-on-assault-allegations/; https://ifex.org/colombian-vice-president-files-criminal-defamation-suit-against-journalist/; https://cpj.org/americas/colombia/2020/; https://ifex.org/ifex-alc-media-defence-and-rsf-support-flip-and-journalist-diana-diaz-against-state-harassment-in-colombia/
30 https://ifex.org/flip-condemns-massive-surveillance-profiling-of-local-and-international-journalists/; https://ifex.org/unnecessary-disproportionate-and-widespread-the-normalization-of-surveillance-in-colombia-and-latin-america/
31 https://cpj.org/data/killed/americas/colombia/?status=Killed&motiveConfirmed%5B%5D=Confirmed&type%5B%5D=Journalist&cc_fips%5B%5D=CO&start_year=1992&end_year=2020&group_by=location
32 https://en.sipiapa.org/notas/1213868-attacks-against-journalists-define-press-freedom-in-colombia
33 https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/05/1038281
34 votocatolico.co/2014/08/por-que-la-exposicion-mujeres-ocultas.html
35 https://bogota.ateos.co/2019/05/discriminacion-contra-profesor-ateo-en-lebrija-santander-comunicado-de-prensa/
36 https://noticias.caracoltv.com/colombia/la-vida-sin-religion-vale-la-pena-minsalud-critica-profetas-politicos-y-redes-sociales
37 https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/alejandro-ordonez-y-alejandro-gaviria-polemica-por-ateismo/523614
38 https://uniandes.edu.co/en/news/in-the-campus/uncomfortable-truths
39 https://www.pulzo.com/nacion/profe-ateo-de-filosofia-alboroto-al-catolico-municipio-de-garzon-PP36971

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