The Law on Religious Freedom

On 21 June 2021, the Portuguese Parliament unanimously approved a vote of congratulations on the twentieth anniversary of the approval of the Law on Religious Freedom, mentioned the relationship between the Law and the democratic Constitution of 1976 and said the following:

"The approval of the 2001 Law on Religious Freedom was a key moment full realization of the constitutional programme as regards religious freedom, having constituted a transformative and exemplary legal landmark in international terms."

In effect, while Article 41 of the Portuguese Constitution already guaranteed freedom of conscience, of religion and of form of worship, the principle of separation between State and religion and the freedom of other religious communities to organize themselves, and the freedom to exercise their functions, the principle that no one may be prejudiced or benefited because of their convictions or religious observance, and also the freedom to teach any religion and the right to be a conscientious objector, the truth is that twenty years after the approval of the Constitution, there was still no legal framework for “full realization of the constitutional programme”.

Work started in 1996 with the creation of a commission which, following a broad consultation of the different religions, certainly one of the legislative processes with greater participation in Portugal, proposed what would serve as the basis for a new law, which consolidated a regime based on the principles of freedom, equality (non-discrimination), separation, the non-religious position of the State, cooperation between the State and the religious communities, and tolerance.

This last principle was included as a way to resolve conflicts which are always possible between the freedom of one person and the freedom of another person (Article 7 of the Law).

Unlike other legal systems based on a system of agreements to be made between the State and the most significant religions in the respective countries (e.g., Spain and Italy), this law intends to build a system that encompasses all aspects of individual freedom and collective freedoms (specific to the various religious communities).

Possibly the most relevant aspects are the development of the contents regarding freedom of conscience, religion and worship, the contents regarding the rights of religious participation, the statute of the ministers of each faith, the exemption from work and school obligations for religious motives (defending, in particular, the weekly day of rest of the respective religions), the possibility of the communities based in Portugal (a concept applicable to communities with a more enduring existence) being able to celebrate religious marriages that are effective in civil terms.

As regards collective rights, in addition to the development of the principle of the freedom to organize themselves, and the freedom to exercise their functions and form of worship (Articles 22 and 23) the way is open for religious aid in certain special conditions, establishing a regime of protection of religious assets (Article 30) and a system is created for tax exemption on religious assets and activities.

While I have no intention of describing the law in its entirety, it has created an environment of equal dignity of the different faiths and opened the way for fruitful interreligious dialogue.

The contents and the practice of the law have been systematically and positively examined in many forms, both in Portugal and abroad.

At the head of this protection system is the Portuguese Commission for Religious Freedom, a body consulted by the Government and Parliament on such matters, and which has a broad set of extremely important skills to ensure the system is fairly balanced.

The Commission has powers to protect religious freedom and to opine on every matter regarding the rights of religious communities and their members in Portugal.

It consists of a President appointed by the Council of Ministers, by members of the religious communities with the position of religious communities established in Portugal, by persons of acknowledged scientific competence in matters falling within the scope of their functions, and by two representatives of the Catholic Church. The Commission may also include representatives of other communities when matters are up for discussion that may regard them.

The Commission’s functions include issuing opinions on processes of establishment, the composition of the Commission on the Broadcasting Times of the Religious Communities, alerting the competent authorities in cases of breach of religious freedom, and issuing an opinion to be preceded by the respective registration regarding the inscription of new communities, in addition to studying and examining the religious situation in Portugal.

I end with the words spoken by the President of the Republic at the tribute paid to Aristides de Sousa Mendes, “No race, ethnic group, religion, culture or civilisation is more important than the next, they all deserve the same respect for the dignity of the individual, his or her indestructible nature, his or her unassailable difference.”

The legal system of religious freedom in Portugal fulfils all these requirements of respect for the dignity of the individual and of tolerance, which are increasingly necessary to ensure a fair and balanced relationship between us all.