Last Updated 11 November 2019

Located in the North Atlantic, Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe. It has a multi-party parliamentary system and was one of the worst affected countries during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis with the collapse of its banking system.

Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory
Free and Equal

Constitution and government

The constitution and other laws and policies protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as freedom of expression, assembly and association. However, the state financially supports and promotes Lutheranism as the country’s official religion.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland (ELCI), is called the National Church and is a state church, which enjoys considerable legal, social, and financial advantages not available to other religions and life stance groups.

Since 1987 the State has allotted a certain monthly amount of money to all religious groups, and since 2013 also to secular life stance groups, for each registered member 16 years old and older. This is irrespective of whether the individual pays income tax or not. The National Church gets an additional 3 billion ISKfrom the government paid into special funds thatpay the salaries of their priests, three bishops, and the bishop’s office staff. The National Church states that it is only getting paid for the large amount of land it leased to the State in 1907 and then sold to it in 1997, but secularists point out that this deal is highly abnormal since the State has to pay the wages indefinitely i.e. forever.

This agreement was up for renewal in 2019 and was extended for another 15 year in September. Members from the minority parties in Parliament have put forward a bill that proposes a full and final separation of church and state when those 15 years are up, but bills put forward by the minority parties in Iceland seldom make it to the floor for actual voting. The minister of justice has recently said that she thinks that separation of church and state is inevitable so maybe Iceland will see a change in this matter in the coming years.

In 2019, 64% of Icelanders were registered in the National Church which means that the 36% of the population who are not members are taking part in its cost despite belonging to other life stance groups or belonging to none. A 2019 poll by Gallup showed that only a third of the population trusts the National Church, a third has no opinion on the matter and a third distrusts the National Church, so the number of people that have trust in the institution is just half of the people belonging to it.

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. Additionally, the National Church has 6-8 paid chaplains working at the University Hospital of Iceland paid by the healthcare system.  The National Church is protected in the constitution and that is the only clause that requires a national referendum to be changed or abolished. It is thus deeply rooted with legal protection and a wide spectrum of privileges within the fabric of Icelandic  governance.

People who are not registered in any religious or secular life stance organization cannot avoid paying the tax. Instead, their money goes directly into the state treasury.

A law passed on January 30, 2013 guarantees equal legal status and funding for secular life stance organizations. The Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association, Siðmennt, (a Member Organization of Humanists International) – applied for and was granted such status on May 3, 2013. Of the 49 registered groups Siðmennt is now the sixth largest. The growth in membership in 2019 has been over 16%, which is by far the largest in percentage.


Education and children’s rights

A new school curriculum took effect in 2013. Instead of a course focused entirely on Christianity (as it was under the previous 2008 law) the curriculum now provides a course which is labeled “religion” but includes ethics and critical thinking. It is particularly focused on human rights and democracy. The new curriculum states that Icelandic education should be shaped by “Christian heritage” but it also mentions the goals of equality, tolerance, love, and respect for human values.

In 2011 the Reykjavik City Council revised its regulations regarding the interaction of schools and churches. Religious groups are prohibited from conducting any activities, including the distribution of proselytizing material, in the city’s public schools (grades one through ten) during school hours. Any student visits to houses of worship during school hours must be under the guidance of a teacher as part of a class on religion. Such instruction may not involve the active participation of students in a religious service. The Minister of Education urged other municipalities to adopt similar rules and some have done so.

Family, community and society

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

Before 2013 newborn babies were automatically registered into the religious organization of the mother. The law was amended in 2013 and since then the requirement for registration is that both parents must belong to same congregation. Otherwise the child is registered as no religion.

The Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association, Siðmennt, has been offering secular ceremonies since the 1980s. The civil confirmation program began in 1989 and in 2019, just under 13% of Icelandic teenagers of confirmation age (14 years) chose the Siðmennt program. Since 2008 Siðmennt has also conducted other secular ceremonies: baby namings, weddings, and funerals. Siðmennt has over 50 trained celebrants. In 2018 these celebrants conducted close to 400 humanist ceremonies, up by almost 50% over the previous year; which is evidence of the continuing diversification and secularization of community norms.

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 freedoms of speech and the press. In June 2010, parliament unanimously passed the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, which mandates the establishment of stringent free speech and press freedom laws and focuses on the protection of investigative journalists and media outlets. In 2016 there was increased concern within Icelandic society and media attention given to the matter of hate speech. In November 2016 several people were formally charged with the crime of hate speech.

“Blasphemy” law abolished

Before 2015, the penal code established fines and imprisonment of up to three months for those who publicly deride or belittle religious doctrines or worship, with penalties of fines and up to two years in prison for assault — including “verbal” assault — on an individual or group based on religion.

Recognised as a de facto “blasphemy” law, the prohibition was scrapped in July 2015. The motion to abolish was brought to parliament by the Pirate Party earlier in the year in part as a response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, and won popular and cross-party support. Siðmennt commented: “Often, countries where there is a lack of democracy and freedom are criticized for punishing people for blasphemy even with death sentences. When those countries are criticized, their spokespeople frequently point out, correctly, that similar laws are in force in “Western” democracies. Therefore, it sends a vital message to the rest of the world if Iceland has repealed its blasphemy law. Nations which maintain blasphemy laws with serious consequences should not be able to point to Iceland and say that it has the same kind of law.”

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