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Legal framework on freedom of religion and actual application

Under article five, the constitution provides for religious freedom and maintains a strict separation between religious organisations and the state.[1] The Penal Code criminalises anyone who incites hatred, contempt or any form of moral or physical violence or carries out such violence against one or more individuals because of their religion. The same applies to anyone who attacks a place of worship or destroys religious objects or hinders or disturbs a religious ceremony.[2]

The constitution recognises in article five the Catholic Church’s ownership of places of worship that have been built “wholly or partly from funds from the National Treasury”, with the sole exception of “chapels dedicated for use by asylums, hospitals, prisons, or other public establishments”.

Article five also states that religious organisations benefit from exemptions from all forms of taxation that would otherwise apply to their places of worship. This is the case provided that they make a successful application for such exemptions to the Ministry of Education and Culture. Dioceses of the Catholic Church also benefit from tax exemptions.[3]

Under law 15.739, public education must respect “the independence of the moral and civic conscience of the student”. The National Board of Public Education must assert, among other things, the principles of secularism, defend moral values and human rights and promote respect for the convictions and beliefs of others.[4]

The Abortion Law (Law No. 18.987) recognises, under article 10, that institutions may object to the practice of the termination of pregnancies. It also recognises in article 11 the right of physicians and medical personnel to refuse to take part in these procedures on the grounds of conscientious objection.[5] The Code of Medical Ethics, which has the force of law, also recognises in articles 40 and 41 the right to conscientious objection on the grounds of personal beliefs.[6]


In June 2016 the Council of Primary Education authorised school visits by Bishop Alberto Sanguinetti. The decision came at the request of the bishop who claimed the visits were for the benefit of society. Civic associations defending the separation of state and religion questioned the authorisation.[7]

In August 2016 the Council of Rectors of Uruguay’s private universities criticised a bill that excludes private universities from benefitting from tax exemptions which apply to charitable donations in other contexts. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a statement supporting the Council of Rectors.[8]

In December 2016 President Tabaré Vásquez visited Pope Francis. The Pope said the Vatican was willing to open files that may contain information about crimes against humanity committed under Uruguay’s former dictatorship. The president invited the Pope to visit Uruguay.[9]

In May 2017 the Departmental Board of Montevideo rejected a request to place a statue of the Virgin Mary in a busy part of Montevideo. The Catholic Church criticised the decision, saying it discriminated against the Catholic community.[10]

In September 2017 the 17th Annual Colloquium of the Latin American Consortium for Religious Freedom was held in Montevideo. It began with a meeting between academics and Uruguayan senators who reflected on 100 years of separation between the state and religion. The meeting also looked at recent legislation on freedom of conscience and religion.[11]

In October 2017 the portal of the Jewish Central Committee of Uruguay posted an interview with Father Julio Fernández Techera, rector of the Catholic University, which touched on topics such as the place of religion in a secular country. The rector noted that for the Church, the university is a place of dialogue between faith and science and other beliefs and cultures. He explained that this is why the Catholic University has a permanent Chair of Judaism and a Chair of Islam and the Arab world.[12]

In December 2017 the Judeo-Christian Confraternity of Uruguay celebrated its 60th anniversary. The Minister of Education and Culture, who attended the event, stressed that dialogue which respects differences is the basis for a peaceful society. He congratulated the association on its contributions in this regard.[13]

In January 2018 Cardinal Daniel Sturla made a public statement in defence of freedom of religion and addressed a number of issues such as the public expression of religiosity, abortion and gender ideology.[14] Feminist groups reacted to Cardinal Sturla’s statements. One group said that the prelate’s views on gender go against equality policies aimed at countering domestic violence.[15]

In March 2018 on International Women’s Day, the Catholic Church expressed its gratitude to and appreciation of women, and highlighted their incalculable contribution to humanity. It also noted that “there is an urgent need to achieve the equality of rights and duties that are inherent in a democratic society.”[16]

Also in March 2018 the National Institute for Human Rights and the Protection of Citizens’ Rights (INDDHH) expressed concern that, during a feminist march, stones and paint bombs were thrown at the church in Cordón. The INDDHH stated that respect for different ideas and beliefs was paramount and that freedom of expression and peaceful protest should be guaranteed.[17]

Prospects for freedom of religion

In the period under review, the situation of freedom of religion has not changed noticeably. Government, academics, clergy and civil society organisations all participate in dialogue about the place of religion in public life. Discussions about freedom of religion often centre on the level of secularism in the country. There are no indications to suggest that the situation of religious freedom is likely to alter much in years to come.

Endnotes / Sources

[1] Uruguay’s Constitution of 1966, Reinstated in 1985, with Amendments through 2004,,, (accessed 12th May 2018).

[2] Código Penal, Uruguay, articles 149 bis and ter, 304, 305 and 306,, (accessed 4th April 2018).

[3] Ley N° 12.802 Se establecen normas de ordenamiento financiero, Uruguay, article 134,, (accessed 4th April 2018).

[4] Ley N°15.739 de Enseñanza, Uruguay, article 2, 6,, (accessed 4th April 2018).

[5] Ley Nº18.987 sobre Interrupción voluntaria del embarazo, Uruguay, articles 10 and 11,, (accessed 4th April 2018).

[6] Ley N° 19.286 Código de Ética Médica, Uruguay, articles 40 and 41,, (accessed 17th April 2018).

[7] D. Battiste, ‘Primaria habilitó visita a escuelas a obispo que cuestionó laicidad’, El Observador, 25th August 2016,, (accessed 18th April 2018).

[8] ‘De las universidades privadas a la Opinión Pública’’, Universidad de Montevideo, 4th  August 2016,, (accessed 17th April 2018); ‘Obispos se reunieron en Asamblea extraordinaria’,, 5th August 2016,, (accessed 17th April 2018).

[9] ‘Vásquez con Francisco: En enero comienza trabajo en archivos de la dictadura’, Uruguay Cambia, Época II- Year 2, N. 52, December 2016, p. 3,, (accessed 17th April 2018).

[10] ‘Iglesia Católica uruguaya denuncia ‘discriminación’ porque no le permiten colocar estatua de la virgen María’, Perú 21, 12th May 2017,, (accessed 12th March 2018).

[11] ‘XVII Coloquio Anual del Consorcio Latinoamericano de Libertad Religiosa’, Centro Derecho y Religión Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 14th September 2017,, (accessed 17th April 2018).

[12] ‘P. Dr. Julio Fernández Techera, Rector de la Universidad Católica: ‘La Iglesia no tiene ningún afán de imponer nada hoy’’, Comité Central Israelita del Uruguay, 23rd October 2017,,-Rector-de-la-Universidad-Cat%F3lica:-%22La-Iglesia-no-tiene-ning%FAn-af%E1n-de-imponer-nada-hoy%94&id=18120, (accessed 18th April 2018).

[13] ‘La Confraternidad Judeo Cristiana comenzó las celebraciones por sus 60 años de vida’, Conferencia Episcopal del Uruguay, 16th December 2017,, (accessed 18th  April 2017)

[14] ‘Cardenal hace firme defensa de la libertad religiosa en Uruguay’, Aciprensa, 3rd January 2018,, (accessed 12 March 2018); ‘Miles en el Buceo por Rosario de las Familias’, El País, 28th January 2018,, (accessed 11th April 2018); ‘Arzobispo de Montevideo, Uruguay, anima a los católicos a defender su identidad en medio de las presiones’, Gaudium Press, 21st February 2018,–Uruguay–anima-a-los-catolicos-a-defender-su-identidad-en-medio-de-las-presiones, (accessed 12th March 2018).

[15] ‘Feministas a Sturla: ‘Quizás le molesta no poder imponer su fe a quienes no creemos’’, El País, 29th January 2018,, (accessed 12th March 2018).

[16] ‘Iglesia Católica insta a trabajar para alcanzar la igualdad de derechos entre hombre y mujer’, El Observador, 7th March 2018,, (accessed 12th March 2018).

[17] ‘La Inddhh expresó ‘preocupación’ por ‘atentado’ a la Iglesia del Cordón’, El País, 9th March 2018,, (accessed 12th March 2018); ‘Repudian ataque a iglesia en marcha feminista’, El País, 10th March 2018,, (accessed 12th March 2018).

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