COVID-19 and Religious Freedom in Latin America

By: Katherine Marshall

May 19, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis and especially lockdown policies have highlighted a range of questions about government regulation of religious bodies in different Latin American countries. Issues arise in what is appreciated as a situation without precedents, a first epidemic crisis striking simultaneously all parts of the world and all communities. That explains why much is happening on the fly, but actions evoke some issues that are long-standing. A webinar with experts from Chile, Argentina, and Brazil on May 14 explored experience and issues. Four highlights were (a) wide agreement on the need to act in the face of the pandemic, (b) wide variations in situations among and within countries, (c) that religious freedom must not be viewed as optional in any sense is often poorly appreciated by governments, and (d) what the participants saw as significant and probably unnecessary overstepping of government interventions with religious communities. Across the region, the wide incidence of poverty, wide inequalities, and patterns of violence especially against women are accentuated by the crisis. Alfred Stepan’s “twin tolerations,” where state respects religion and vice versa, was highlighted as an important guiding principle.

This was the sixth in a series of weekly webinars organized by a consortium including the Cambridge Institute on Religion and International Studies, the Center for Religious Studies at the Bruno Kessler Foundation, the Center for Justice and Society at Fundação Getulio Vargas Law School-Rio de Janeiro, the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University Law School, the European Union Office of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the University of Siena. The series continues with a focus this week (May 21) on COVID-19, religion, and business. The Latin America panel (most earlier events have focused on Europe) was chaired by David Moore, formerly USAID’s general counsel, currently nominated by the United States to serve on the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Panelists were Professor Ana Maria Celis from Chile, Dr. Juan G. Navarro Floria from Argentina, and Professor Rodrigo Vitorino Souza Alves from Brazil.

The discussion highlighted both common and different country-level responses to the crisis. A shared understanding was the distinction between freedoms that are internal (i.e. beliefs that one holds), which are inviolable everywhere, and external practice that, in this crisis, concerns especially gatherings for religious purposes. Public health emergencies clearly demand restrictions, but questions turn around how much restriction is needed, how far they go to dictate practice, and what instruments (laws, enforcement) are needed and appropriate. Several issues, common to other regions, center on holding funerals during the lockdowns, burial rites (including handling of bodies), and end of life issues (where legal and social norms on euthanasia and living wills are weak in some countries). Restrictions on ritual baths were mentioned. Among issues facing faith communities is the fate and functioning of schools run by religious communities.

An important distinction was made between government restrictions (the term has a pejorative sense) and government regulations, which are necessary, with limitations, in a democratic society. But the questions turn on what may or may not be appropriate in a public health emergency. Laws and international norms set the framework for regulations, but following the rapid onset and urgency of the COVID-19 crisis, required legal steps and ratifications have not always been followed.

Violence and heightened tensions involving religious communities have been quite limited, as are apocalyptic voices with false or misleading information. The instances that occur are said to be rare and quite readily dealt with. The situation of refugees in some parts of the region (where religious institutions are deeply involved) is a concern but has not involved specific debates as yet.

An observation was that the quite limited advance collaboration between governments and religious communities in some countries (established dialogue forums, for example) has translated into rather fragmented if admirable volunteer responses from religious communities. Argentina is an exception here. Possible differential treatment (for tax purposes, for example) between religious and non-religious civil society organizations or between different religious communities (Catholic versus evangelical, for example) has given rise to some concerns. Again echoing comments from other parts of the world, religious communities seek funding, especially for their community work, where they see their institutions playing needed and often unique roles.

The apparent homogeneity of Latin America’s religious landscape and limited interreligious tensions in most countries can mask significant challenges that the COVID-19 crisis highlights. They also mask widely different circumstances: In Brazil, for example, local communities range in size from a town of 800 to Sao Paolo’s metropolitan area with 21 million. Overall, religious practice has generally been seen as a devotional matter, thus essentially private, but the experts pointed to significant and worrying restrictions that the COVID-19 crisis has brought to light. Restrictions on religious gatherings increased beginning perhaps a decade ago. An irony was noted that limitations on religious gatherings have not applied to soccer games. A basic question asked was whether the strict application of closures preventing religious gatherings and practices is truly necessary, especially when so much suffering with sickness and death is the reality. Some restrictions are seen as excessive, including banning gatherings for funerals and other important life milestones.

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