Last Updated 18 June 2021

Uruguay is the second smallest nation on the continent, bordering Brazil and Argentina. Its mostly urban population centres around the capital, Montevideo.1https://www.britannica.com/place/Uruguay With a long tradition of secularism, Uruguay is the most socially secular nation in Latin America.

The precise religious demography of the 3.5 million population is not measured in national censuses. Data from 2006 suggests that 47% of the population were Catholic, and a further 11% belonged to other Christian denominations. At that time, the country had one of the largest recorded proportions of non-religious people in the region, accounting for 17% of the population.2https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/uruguay/#people-and-society More recent estimates suggest that the proportions of non-religious individuals may have grown to account for some 34% of the population, overtaking the proportion of the population identifying as Catholic.3https://www.latinobarometro.org/latOnline.jsp However, recent reports indicate a rise in the influence of evangelical protestants in politics.

Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory
Free and Equal

Constitution and government

The Constitution4https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Uruguay_2004.pdf?lang=en in Uruguay and numerous laws explicitly prohibit discrimination based on religion. There is a strict separation between religion and state. The Penal Code restricts ill-treatment of ethnic, religious, and other minority groups. The Institución Nacional de Derechos Humanos (National Institute of Human Rights) an autonomous branch of Congress designed to defend, promote, and protect the human rights recognized by the Constitution and international law, and the Ministry of Education and Culture’s (MEC) Honorary Commission against Racism, Xenophobia, and All Forms of Discrimination exists to enforce government compliance with the laws. Furthermore, Representatives from numerous religious and civil society bodies are actively involved in the Honorary Commission.

Under law, secularism is commemorated on 19 March each year.5https://parlamento.gub.uy/documentosyleyes/leyes?Ly_Nro=&Ly_fechaDePromulgacion%5Bmin%5D%5Bdate%5D=18-05-2017&Ly_fechaDePromulgacion%5Bmax%5D%5Bdate%5D=18-05-2021&Ltemas=&tipoBusqueda=T&Searchtext=laicidad

Constraints on religious influence in political life

Religious groups have reported that the State’s commitment to secularism has precluded opportunities for dialogue. Religious groups have further argued that the State’s interpretation of the term ‘secularism’ is too narrow – interpreted to mean an absence of religion rather than the peaceful coexistence and equal weight afforded to religion and belief groups, and the separation of religion from State.6https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/uruguay/; https://www.xn--lamaana-7za.uy/opinion/la-laicidad-violada-en-uruguay-ante-la-indiferencia-de-muchos/; https://dialogopolitico.org/debates/una-laicidad-para-el-siglo-xxi/

Further, a number of evangelical Protestant organizations, including Mision Vida para las Naciones Church (Life Mission for the Nations), filed a petition before the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for discrimination by the state based on religious grounds, in May 2019.

Some deviations from Laicidad

Despite Uruguay’s generally good record on religion-state separation, there are tax exemptions permitted to religious groups for houses of worship. In order to receive such exemptions, a religious group must first register with the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) as a non-profit entity and submit draft organising statutes.

In general terms, Uruguay has low influence from religious groups in politics. However, given the tax exemptions that religious groups enjoy, both Catholics and Protestants are establishing an influence, especially among lower income people. In 2014, a coalition of pastors put a lot of money into one branch of the Blanco Party and attained representation, with a deputy and a Senator.7subrayado.com.uy/Site/noticia/38696/conozca-al-pastor-que-asumira-como-diputado-por-el-partido-nacional

Muslims in the country are permitted to acquire an optional identity card that identifies their religious affiliation to employers and permits them to withdraw from work early on Fridays. This might be described as enabling a positive religious freedom, but it is also a privilege not permitted to other belief groups on analogous grounds.

Education and children’s rights

Uruguay prohibits religious instruction in its public schools.8https://laicismo.org/la-laicidad-en-el-uruguay/160955 Public schools allow students belonging to minority religious groups to take time off school for religious holidays without being penalised. However, it remains to be seen whether secular or humanist families would be permitted similar treatment (they are not explicitly included in the law as it stands).

According to the US State Department:9https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/uruguay/

“The constitution prohibits religious instruction in public schools. Public schools close on some Christian holidays. In deference to its secular nature, the government does not refer to holidays by their Christian names; for example, Christmas is formally referred to as “Family Day” and Holy Week is widely referred to as “Tourism Week.” Students belonging to non-Christian or minority religious groups may be absent from school on their religious holidays without penalty. Private schools run by religious organizations may decide which religious holidays to observe.”

Religious groups have raised concerns that the State’s commitment to laicidad impinges on their ability to teach in accordance with their religious beliefs. In particular, they have raised concerns regarding sex education. Platforms are reportedly not given to those with positions contrary to the rights of women’, LGBTI+ rights, or abortion.10https://www.xn--lamaana-7za.uy/opinion/la-laicidad-violada-en-uruguay-ante-la-indiferencia-de-muchos/; https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/uruguay/

Family, community and society

Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights

While abortion is legal in the country, it is reported to be difficult to access as a result of health professionals’ refusal to perform this service on religious grounds and a lack of access to health centres in rural areas.11https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/americas/uruguay/report-uruguay/

LGBTI+ rights

Uruguay has often been at the vanguard of LGBTI+ rights in the region and such rights are generally respected in the country. Same-sex sexual relationships have been legal since 1933, while same-sex marriage was legalized in 2013.12https://www.reuters.com/article/us-uruguay-rights-vote-idUSKCN1UV2EV However, the country has yet to ban conversion therapy.13https://www.equaldex.com/region/uruguay

In 2018, the government passed legislation that permits trans individuals to change their gender identity and guarantees them access to healthcare. Attempts by conservative representatives in parliament to roll-back these rights failed in 2019.14https://www.reuters.com/article/us-uruguay-rights-vote-idUSKCN1UV2EV

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

The right to freedom of assembly and association are guaranteed by law, and the government generally respects this in practice. A broad range of community organizations are active in civic life in the country, including many groups focussed on the rights of women for which campaigning aims to raise particular awareness about issues such violence against women and societal discrimination.

The constitutional guarantees of free expression are generally respected, and violations of press freedom are relatively uncommon.15 https://rsf.org/en/uruguay; https://freedomhouse.org/country/uruguay/freedom-world/2020 The press in Uruguay is privately owned and there are numerous daily newspapers, many of which have affiliations with political parties.

The government of Uruguay does not restrict academic freedom, nor does it place restrictions on internet usage.16https://freedomhouse.org/country/uruguay/freedom-world/2020

Passage of the Law of Urgent Consideration

In October 2020, the newly-elected centre-right government passed the Law of Urgent Consideration (Ley de Consideración Urguente – LUC), which – among other provisions designed to address public security concerns – grants police greater powers to use force to quell protests, presents greater obstacles to public demonstrations and the work of unions, and criminalizes criticizing the police.17https://www.elpais.com.uy/informacion/politica/nace-ley-urgente-consideracion-puntos-clave-proyecto-lacalle-pou.html; https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/americas/uruguay/report-uruguay/ The law has also been criticized by the former Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Edison Lanza, as creating a vehicle of censorship through the “right to be forgotten.”18https://globalvoices.org/2020/12/21/uruguays-new-government-is-prioritising-security-but-is-it-at-the-cost-of-free-speech/

The current government’s interpretation of Laicidad has been used to punish public servants carrying out protests or campaigning activities. This includes employees of a hospital who set up a table to collect signatures in protest against the LUC,19https://ladiaria.com.uy/politica/articulo/2021/1/sindicato-del-hospital-de-clinicas-afirma-que-incremento-su-recoleccion-de-firmas-para-el-referendum-a-partir-de-los-cuestionamientos-del-oficialismo/ and teachers who engaged in election campaigning on the premises of the school. The teachers were suspended for six months on half pay for “proselytising.”20https://radiouruguay.uy/el-partido-colorado-emitio-una-declaracion-sobre-laicidad/


1 https://www.britannica.com/place/Uruguay
2 https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/uruguay/#people-and-society
3 https://www.latinobarometro.org/latOnline.jsp
4 https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Uruguay_2004.pdf?lang=en
5 https://parlamento.gub.uy/documentosyleyes/leyes?Ly_Nro=&Ly_fechaDePromulgacion%5Bmin%5D%5Bdate%5D=18-05-2017&Ly_fechaDePromulgacion%5Bmax%5D%5Bdate%5D=18-05-2021&Ltemas=&tipoBusqueda=T&Searchtext=laicidad
6 https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/uruguay/; https://www.xn--lamaana-7za.uy/opinion/la-laicidad-violada-en-uruguay-ante-la-indiferencia-de-muchos/; https://dialogopolitico.org/debates/una-laicidad-para-el-siglo-xxi/
7 subrayado.com.uy/Site/noticia/38696/conozca-al-pastor-que-asumira-como-diputado-por-el-partido-nacional
8 https://laicismo.org/la-laicidad-en-el-uruguay/160955
9 https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/uruguay/
10 https://www.xn--lamaana-7za.uy/opinion/la-laicidad-violada-en-uruguay-ante-la-indiferencia-de-muchos/; https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/uruguay/
11 https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/americas/uruguay/report-uruguay/
12, 14 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-uruguay-rights-vote-idUSKCN1UV2EV
13 https://www.equaldex.com/region/uruguay
15 https://rsf.org/en/uruguay; https://freedomhouse.org/country/uruguay/freedom-world/2020
16 https://freedomhouse.org/country/uruguay/freedom-world/2020
17 https://www.elpais.com.uy/informacion/politica/nace-ley-urgente-consideracion-puntos-clave-proyecto-lacalle-pou.html; https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/americas/uruguay/report-uruguay/
18 https://globalvoices.org/2020/12/21/uruguays-new-government-is-prioritising-security-but-is-it-at-the-cost-of-free-speech/
19 https://ladiaria.com.uy/politica/articulo/2021/1/sindicato-del-hospital-de-clinicas-afirma-que-incremento-su-recoleccion-de-firmas-para-el-referendum-a-partir-de-los-cuestionamientos-del-oficialismo/
20 https://radiouruguay.uy/el-partido-colorado-emitio-una-declaracion-sobre-laicidad/

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