Last Updated 30 May 2023

Located in the North Atlantic, Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe. It is a multi-party parliamentary democracy.

Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory
Free and Equal

Constitution and government

The Constitution1 and other laws and policies protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as freedom of expression, assembly and association.

However, Article 62 of the Constitution declares that, “The Evangelical Lutheran Church shall be the State Church in Iceland and, as such, it shall be supported and protected by the State. This may be amended by law.”

The State therefore financially supports and promotes Lutheranism as the country’s official religion.

According to Article 63,

“All persons have the right to form religious associations and to practice their religion in conformity with their individual convictions. Nothing may however be preached or practised which is prejudicial to good morals or public order.”

Article 64 outlines,

“No one may lose any of his civil or national rights on account of his religion, nor may anyone refuse to perform any generally applicable civil duty on religious grounds.

“Everyone shall be free to remain outside religious associations. No one shall be obliged to pay any personal dues to any religious association of which he is not a member.”

The State Church

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland (ELCI), named the National Church, enjoys considerable legal, social, and financial advantages not available to other religions and life stance groups. The National Church is protected in the constitution and that is the only clause that requires a national referendum to be changed or abolished (Article 79 of the Constitution). It is thus deeply rooted with legal protection and a wide spectrum of privileges within the fabric of Icelandic governance.

Additional financial support

In addition to receiving financial support through the church tax system, the National Church (ELCI) gets further financial support, based on an agreement with the state from 1997,2 where the National Church sold the land they owned to the state in exchange for financial support. This financial support is substantial and allows the National Church to offer much more extensive services to their members than other religious or lifestance organizations. The amount of additional support, approximately 4.,2 billion ISK per annum (approx. US$30.6 million), was partially based on membership size, until 2019, when the agreement was renewed and extended by 15 years and the calculations simplified.3 This means that the amount will not decrease, despite the trend of membership shrinking within the state church (see ‘Dwindling support for the National Church’ below). The agreement, based on the lease of land, has been criticized for its lack of transparency and infinite payments.4Many MP’s criticized both the original agreement and its renewal in the National Parliaments’ processing of the law amendments that de facto enabled the 2019 renewal, see parliamentary discussion:

State-funded staff

There are more than 100 priests employed for the additional funding that the National Church receives, which is to some extent earmarked for salaries. The National Church also enjoys the privilege of having a Department of Theology at the University of Iceland where it educates and trains its students for 5 years to become clergy and the government pays the salaries of the teachers there.5 Additionally, the National Church has 6.8 paid chaplains working at the University Hospital of Iceland paid by the healthcare system.6

Dwindling support for the National Church

As mentioned above, membership of the National Church is shrinking, and as of 2023, 58.6% of Icelandic citizens are members.7 This is a rapid change from 1992, when 92% of the population were members of the National Church. Despite the majority of the population belonging to the National Church, public support is dwindling, and only 27% respond that they trust the National Church fully, or to a large extent, according to survey expert Gallup.8 A majority of the population, or 54%, supports separation of church and state, with 20% against.9 p. 20 The current bishop of Iceland, Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir, has stated that she believes that church and state have already separated, based on the changes in legislature in recent years, that have given the church extended freedom to govern their internal affairs.10

State support for Religious Organizations

All registered and acknowledged religious organizations get financial support from the state, based on their membership size.11 Secular lifestance organizations have been included since 2013. The state allocates a monthly payment from income taxes to officially registered and recognized religious groups or life-stance organizations for every registered member 16 years of age and older. The per capita payment amount varies every year according to the annual budget bill. The government allocates the payment regardless of whether the individual pays any income tax.12 In 2023, this amount is 1192 ISK (approx. US$8.69) per month per member, or around $100 per member per year. Those who are not registered in any of the state approved religious or lifestance organizations are not exempt from the tax and their contribution remains in the state fund.

The addition of lifestance organizations

A law passed on 30 January 2013 guarantees equal legal status and funding for secular lifestance organizations.13 Humanists Iceland, Siðmennt, (a Member Organization of Humanists International) was granted such status on 3 May 2013. Since then, Humanists Iceland continues to grow, almost exponentially, from around 300 registered members in 2013, to over five thousand in 2022. Humanists Iceland are currently the sixth largest lifestance organization and by far the biggest secular one.

Education and children’s rights

Education in Iceland is compulsory and most elementary schools are state run. Private schools based on religious beliefs are practically non-existent. However, the curriculum has a slight Christianity-centric focus and the National Church seems to have better access to educational institutions than other religious or lifestance organizations.

National Curriculum

Equality is one of the six fundamental pillars of the Icelandic national curriculum guide for compulsory schools, and so are democracy and human rights.14 Teaching methods are to take equality and equal rights into consideration and must not discriminate against pupils, for example, because of gender, residence, origin, race, disabilities, religion, sexual orientation or social status.

In the newest update of the national curriculum (2013), focus shifted from Christianity studies to religious studies. The curriculum outlines the educational values and main objectives of compulsory religion and ethics classes as,

“Religious studies are intended to enhance the understanding of prevailing religions and different religious traditions based on tolerance and broadmindedness. Ethics teaches how moral values may be examined, enhances moral sense and discusses controversial ethical issues.”

Christianity in the curriculum

Despite the effort to shift focus from Christianity to religion and ethics, Christian heritage, the Bible, customs and symbols of the Christian Church and other references to Christianity remain in the curriculum. The second article of the Compulsory School Act,15 which is emphasized in the curriculum, defines the objectives of compulsory school:

“The role of the compulsory school, in cooperation with the home, is to encourage pupils’ general development and prepare them for active participation in a democratic society that is continuously developing. Compulsory school practice and methods shall be characterized by tolerance and affection, Christian heritage of Icelandic culture, equality, democratic cooperation, responsibility, concern, forgiveness and respect for human values. The compulsory school shall endeavor to organize its activities to correspond fully with the position and needs of their pupils and encourage the overall development, well-being and education of each individual.”

Furthermore, Christianity is emphasized throughout the curriculum, with competence criteria such as with specific references to the Bible and by repeatedly highlighting Christianity specifically and combining other worldviews into “other main religions of the world”.

Humanism in the curriculum

Humanism is not mentioned in the National Curriculum. There is a competence criteria however, that states that by the end of Grade 7, pupils should be able to compare selected religious and secular views of life.

Freedom from religious indoctrination

Students have the right to be exempted from compulsory studies related to religion, and schools are instructed to show consideration and understanding in discussing issues connected to homes, such as religious beliefs and ideologies (National Curriculum, p.80).

According to the US State Department,16

“Parents wishing to exempt pupils from compulsory instruction in Christianity, ethics, and theology must submit a written application to the school principal. The principal may request additional information. The principal then registers the application as a “special case” and writes an official response to the parents, accepting or denying the request. School authorities are not required to offer other religious or secular instruction in place of these classes.”

The Ministry of Education has also urged municipalities to adopt rules on the interaction between schools and religious organizations and some have done so. Still, many schools and kindergartens visit churches during school time in connection with the main Christian holidays and this frequently sparks a public discussion on active participation in religious services during school time.17;;
Participation is not mandatory, but many people have expressed concern over the alienation of students outside the norm. Similarly, worship and cultural expression of religious notions, such as nativity plays, continue to be criticized by parents and organizations such as Humanists Iceland.

Family, community and society

Icelandic society is increasingly secular and changes to education, removing religious instruction, and the repeal of the “blasphemy” law in addition to the steady, principled pressure applied by Humanists Iceland and others to uphold secular rights and values may be attributed in part to this general shift.

Automatic registration of infants

The state maintains a registry of individual religious affiliation of its citizens, which is used to calculate the value of each group’s financial payment from state taxes.

Changes to the law in 2013 have led to a significant reduction in the membership numbers of adherents to religious or lifestance groups, thereby reducing their income. Where previously, a newborn’s religious affiliation was derived from the mother, children are now registered according to the religious or lifestance organization of both parents. If the parents belong to two different organizations, or are registered as outside such organizations, or their status unknown, the child is registered as “outside a religious organization.”

This has been criticized, particularly by supporters of the State Church, as the chief beneficiary of the previous system of registration. The changes in this procedure are likely to have sped up the decline in membership of the State Church.

A change in affiliation of children younger than 16 requires the consent of both parents if both have custody; if only one parent has custody, the consent of the noncustodial parent is not required. The law requires parents to consult their children regarding any changes in the child’s affiliation between the ages of 12 and 16. After turning 16, children may choose affiliation on their own.18 However, according to Humanists Iceland, few individuals opt to formally change their religious affiliation in state records.

Religion and culture

Confirmations for teenagers

Religious confirmations for teenagers are a huge cultural phenomenon in Iceland. An overwhelming majority of teenagers, usually around 14 years of age, take part in a confirmation ceremony, following a confirmation course. This cultural phenomenon includes a big celebration for friends and extended family, and expectations of very valuable gifts, that can set the young people up financially for their future. Until 1989, religious confirmations were the only option, with a vast majority of children choosing a confirmation by the State Church.

Humanists Confirmations emerge

Humanists Iceland was originally founded first and foremost as a platform for offering secular confirmation ceremonies, dubbed civil confirmation, modeled by the traditions of Human-Etisk Forbund in Norway, from the year 1989. The civil confirmation includes a course in ethics, philosophy, communication and critical thinking, followed by a confirmation ceremony.19 More than 750 teenagers are registered for a civil confirmation in 2023, which adds up to around 15% of the population—way beyond the proportion of Icelanders that are members of Humanists Iceland, which is around 1.5% (as of 2023).

Ceremonies for families

Humanist ceremonies continue to grow year by year. In 2022, more than 500 families chose to look to Humanists Iceland for a wedding ceremony, name giving or a funeral. Humanists Iceland conducts more than 18% of weddings in Iceland, outside of those that take place in District Commissioner offices. Humanists Iceland has trained over 80 celebrants, out of which around 50 are active. Humanist celebrants accredited by Humanists Iceland have a legal license to officiate weddings.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

The rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly are guaranteed by the constitution and protected in practice. The constitution guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Each day, state radio broadcasts a Lutheran morning devotion. In addition, each Sunday morning, state radio broadcasts Lutheran worship services. In its 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom, the US State Department, reported that while other religious groups were able to broadcast their services, none had sought to do so, according to the state broadcaster’s chief of programming.20 However, Humanists Iceland report having sought and been denied the opportunity to broadcast their services.

Media freedom

Although Iceland ranked 15 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2022 World Press Freedom Index, there are concerns regarding media concentration, and, particularly the impact of large Icelandic fishing companies seeking to undermine and control public debate by spying on, intimidating, and attacking the credibility of journalists and civil society organizations that had reported on the corruption allegations.21;

In 2022, four journalists were called in for questioning by the North Iceland police over their coverage of fishing giant Samherji; specifically, their revelations of a group calling itself “the Samherji guerilla division” which sought to engage in damage control over the company’s revealed involvement in bribery and tax evasion related to the company’s operations in Namibia.22

When the fifth journalist was called in for questioning in 2023 because of their work as a journalist, this time for being the recipient of an email, the Union of Icelandic Journalists passed a resolution condemning the acts of the police.23

“Blasphemy” law abolished

In 2015, the government abolished a de facto blasphemy provision from the penal


4 Many MP’s criticized both the original agreement and its renewal in the National Parliaments’ processing of the law amendments that de facto enabled the 2019 renewal, see parliamentary discussion:
9 p. 20
16, 18, 20

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