If it's not broken, don't fix it: review of religious policy in Costa Rica

AutorPHD. Dennis P. Petri
Vol.2, núm . 1
enero-ju nio del 2022
ISSN: 16 59 1623 16
If it’s not broken, don’t x it: review
of religious policy in Costa Rica
PhD. Dennis P. Petri
Fecha de recepción: 29 de agosto de 2021 | Fecha de aprobación: 2 de diciembre de 2021
Costa Rica is world-renowned for being the oldest and most stable democracy in Latin
America, the abolition of its standing army and its progressive environmental protection
policies. Costa Rica is also the only remaining Catholic state in Latin America. In recent
years, more and more voices demand that the country should become a secular state. In
this study, I take an in-depth look at Costa Rica’s religious policy from a political science
perspective using data from the Religion and State Project which I complement by primary
and secondary sources such as interviews, newspapers reports, jurisprudence and legal data.
Using this data, I compare Costa Rica’s religious policy with that of other regions, including
democracies and non-democracies. I argue that there are only minor forms of favoritism of
Catholicism and only a few instances in which minority religions are being discriminated. I
conclude that the confessional nature of the Costa Rican state is merely symbolic. Because
symbols matter, the confessional nature of the Costa Rican state could be reformed, but I
posit that other reforms should be prioritized in order to guarantee full religious freedom for
all religious and non-religious groups.
Secularism, religious policy, religious freedom, religion and politics, Costa Rica
The majority of Latin American countries have been electoral democracies for about
three decades and have made substantial progress in terms of quality of democracy,
notwithstanding remaining challenges. O’Donnell (1993) explains that in many Latin
American democracies, the state does not “effectively establish its legality over its
territory”, leading to the existence of “brown areas”, a color code referring to peripheral
areas that combine democratic and authoritarian features. Dabène (2007) discusses how the
disastrous social-economic policies have led to electoral behaviors that are dysfunctional
for the stability and quality of democracy. Carrillo-Flórez & Petri (2009) argue that the
increase of the performance of parliamentary institutions is a pending task in Latin America.
1 Dennis P. Petr i is internation al director of the Internat ional Institute for Religious Free- dom; founder and
scholar-at-large at the O bservatory of Religious Freedom in Latin Amer ica; Lecturer at The Hague Uni-
versity of Applied Sciences and Professor at the Latin Am erican University of Science and Technology
(ULACIT) and the Lat in American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO); and director of the Foundation
Platform for Social Transformation. Email: dp.petri@gmail.com. código ORCID: 00 00-0002-7473-2576
Vol.2, núm . 1
enero-ju nio del 2022
ISSN: 16 59 1623 17
Since Latin America’s democratization in the 1980’s, the legal protection of religious freedom is
guaranteed by international treaties and national Constitutions. Most Latin American countries are
signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights, which protect freedom of religion. As
far as national Constitutions and state interference in religion are concerned, there are no major concerns
related to the legal protection of religious freedom. Data from the Religion and State (RAS) Project
(Bar-Ilan University) conrm that apart from some forms of preferential treatment given to Catholics and
some registration requirements and limitations on proselytizing, Latin American states have one of the
lowest levels of government involvement in religion, with the notable exceptions of Cuba and Mexico.
Today, Latin America remains a majority Catholic continent, but the political role of Catholicism has
been on the decline. Mexico famously became a secular state in 1857 (Gill, 1998, 2008). Throughout
the 19th and 20th centuries, many countries in the region moved in a similar direction (González &
González, 2008). The latest countries in the region to become secular states were Argentina (1994) and
Bolivia (2009). As of today, Costa Rica is the only remaining Catholic state in Latin America. What does
this mean in practice for Costa Rica’s religious policy and the respect of the right to religious freedom
in this country?
In this study, I provide a comprehensive description of Costa Rica’s religious policy using the RAS dataset
(Fox, 2008, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2019; Fox, Finke & Mataic, 2018).
Directed by Jonathan Fox, the RAS
dataset follows a socio-metric (quantitative) methodology that focuses specically on “the relationship
between religion and the state apparatus.” It “measures the extent of government involvement in religion”
(2011) based on the coding of a broad range of primary sources. Although the RAS dataset is limited to
the political dimension of religious freedom, it integrates both formal (legal) and informal dimensions
of the subject. In other words, the methodological design covers both legal restrictions on freedom of
religion and policies or customs that restrict religious freedom in practice.
The methodology of the RAS dataset uses complex coding standards which do not allow any expert
appreciation or judgment on the observed variables. A student of Ted R. Gurr, Jonathan Fox used the
Minorities at Risk project (Gurr, 1993) as a starting point for the development of his composite measures of
religion and state, by adapting and broadening its religious discrimination variables beyond the context of
ethnoreligious minorities. (He also collected data on specic religion variables for use with the Minorities
at Risk dataset.) The dataset developed in the framework of this project includes variables for ‘ofcial
religion’, ‘religious discrimination against minority religions’, ‘regulation of and restrictions on the majority
religion or all religions’ and ‘religious support’, as well as other topics. Additional variables measure policies
including religious education, the registration of religious organizations, restrictions on abortion, restrictions
on proselytizing, and religious requirements for holding public ofce or citizenship. A societal module was
added to the RAS dataset in 2017. The variables that measure actions taken by societal actors describe societal
discrimination and minority societal actions (Fox, Finke & Mataic, 2018).

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