Portuguese Colonization, Catholic Faith, and the Relativization of Secularism in the Jurisprudence of Brazil’s Supreme Court

Ana Cristina Melo de Pontes Botelho is a research professor at the Center for Comparative Constitutional Studies and a collaborating professor at the University of Brasília.

The Role of Portuguese Catholic Colonization in the Emergence of the Brazilian Nation

With the Portuguese colonization of Brazil, Franciscan priests and members of other religious orders were sent to catechize the indigenous inhabitants of the region. The Portuguese brought with them the culture of the June festivals dedicated to various saints, including Saint John, Saint Peter, and Saint Anthony of Padua, a Portuguese Catholic priest and friar of the Franciscan Order, who died on 13 June 1231.

Devotion acquired additional characteristics in Portuguese evangelized countries but always maintained a belief in the power of saints. Today, the June festivals are very popular throughout Brazil but still preserve many Portuguese traditions, such as food, bonfires, dance festivals, and fireworks. They demonstrate that a significant portion of the Brazilian population holds an ancestral religiosity and that we are a predominantly Catholic country due to Portuguese colonization. More generally, Brazil remains the country with the strongest belief in God in the world.

Given the long Catholic tradition tied to Brazilian statehood and high public religiosity, it is not a coincidence that the preamble of the 1988 Brazilian Federal Constitution contains the words “under the protection of God,” exemplifying the influence of religion on the Brazilian state. The internal regulations of the Chamber of Deputies (the lower chamber of the National Congress) stipulate that “the Holy Bible must remain on the table throughout [Chamber Sessions], available for anyone who wishes to use it” (Article 79, § 1). When the president of the Chamber of Deputies opens the session, they must utter the following words: “Under the protection of God and in the name of the Brazilian people, we begin our work.”

Many other signs of religiosity are present in public life in Brazil, such as banknotes with the expression “God be praised” and crucifixes in public offices, including the Chamber of Deputies. Such signs reaffirm the strong influence of Brazil’s Catholic colonial past and demonstrate that the Brazilian state is not fully neutral in religious matters.

The significance of religion in public life can challenge the secular nature of the Brazilian state and complicate the realization of religious rights.

Secularity and Religious Freedom in the Brazilian Constitution

The 1824 Constitution of the Portuguese Empire was promulgated by Emperor Pedro I “in the name of the Holy Trinity” and reflected the role of Catholicism as the official and dominant religion. Since then, there have been several constitutional attempts to separate church from the state.

The current Constitution of 1988 contains several clauses protecting religious freedom and the secular nature of the state. In particular, Article 5.VI guarantees freedom of conscience and belief, ensuring the free exercise of religious worship and the protection of places of worship and their liturgies. Article 5.VII stipulates that religious assistance be ensured in civilian and military institutions of collective confinement. Article 5.VIII prohibits the deprivation of rights on the grounds of religious belief or philosophical or political conviction, excepting where such beliefs are invoked to avoid a legally required obligation and to refuse to perform an alternative service established by law.

Furthermore, Article 19.I stipulates that governments are “forbidden to establish religious cults or churches, subsidize them, hinder their operation, or maintain relationships of dependence or alliance with them or their representatives, except as provided by law, for collaboration of public interest.” The Constitution forbids taxing religious premises (Article 150.VI). And while the Constitution requires that religious education be provided during regular school hours in public elementary schools, it establishes enrollment as optional (Article 210, § 1°). Finally, in several provisions, the Constitution emphasizes that belief criteria cannot be mandated in public affairs, regardless of whether such beliefs are in the majority or minority.

These provisions prove that the Constitution considers the existence of multiple religions as beneficial for society. It recognizes that it is the duty of the Brazilian state to protect religious pluralism and to create conditions for religious freedom to be fully exercised, in order to keep pace with ongoing social changes.

The Brazilian Supreme Court’s Religious Freedom Jurisprudence: Between Religious Pluralism and the Catholic Influence

Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court has developed a rich jurisprudence explaining how the Court understands religious rights, including rights to have and practice a religion, to establish a religion, to proselytize, and to protect religious organizations’ places of worship, liturgies, and symbols.

One emblematic case involved a priest from Bahia who wrote a book in which he argued that the Catholic faith is not compatible with Candomblé and other Afro-Brazilian religions. The question presented was whether the clergyman had committed a crime by using derogatory, disrespectful, and prejudiced expressions in his book that were offensive to those who profess other religions. The Court concluded that freedom of religious belief allowed the priest to convey to those who profess Catholicism his understanding of how African religious syncretism compares to the Catholic faith. In line with this reasoning, the Supreme Court concluded that religious proselytism is part of the essential core of freedom of religious expression and dismissed the criminal action brought against the clergymen [1].

Another controversy considered by the Supreme Court involved the requirement of religious education in public schools. In 2010, the Attorney General challenged the constitutionality of several provisions of the Education Guidelines and Bases Law, as well as an agreement entered into between Brazil and the Holy See (Executive Decree 7107/2010) wherein the Catholic Church committed educational resources to the service of Brazilian society. The Attorney General argued that religious education in public schools should not be confessional (attached to a specific belief) [2] and should focus on addressing the history and doctrine of various religions from a secular perspective.

After intense debates, the Supreme Court ruled in 2016, by a vote of 6 to 5, that confessional religious education in the Brazilian public school system was constitutional. The then-president of the Court, Justice Cármen Lúcia, cast the tie-breaking vote while siding with a concurring opinion, reasoning that, by allowing optional enrollment in religious classes, the Brazilian Federal Constitution preserved both the state’s secular nature and the population’s freedom of belief. Justice Lúcia emphasized that the secularity of the Brazilian state did not conflict with the duty of the state to organize optional religious education in public schools, concluding that the challenged laws did not authorize proselytism, catechism, or the imposition of a specific religion.

The Supreme Court has also addressed the presence of crucifixes in courts and other public buildings. This practice is usually justified as being an integral, historical aspect of local culture that constitutes a social norm and, as such, does not violate secularity.

One such case was brought before the Magistracy Council of the Court of Justice of Rio Grande do Sul, which unanimously ordered the removal of religious symbols from the state’s judiciary buildings in 2012. The court grounded its decision in the preservation of secularity and religious and social pluralism. It reasoned that conducting a trial in a courtroom with a significant symbol of a specific religion could undermine the state’s neutrality in deliberations involving conflicting values.

In 2016, just four years later, crucifixes and religious symbols were reinstalled in the judiciary buildings of Rio Grande do Sul following a decision by the National Council of Justice. That body concluded that the presence of religious images in courts does not compromise the secular state or religious freedom and that prohibiting the presence of such symbols could be considered a form of religious intolerance.

A similar dispute arose in São Paulo, where both the trial court and the Federal Regional Court of the Third Region confirmedthat the presence of religious symbols affirms religious on public buildings freedom and respects cultural aspects of Brazilian society.

The Federal Public Ministry of São Paulo eventually brought a civil action to the Supreme Court, arguing that all religious symbols, such as crucifixes, should be removed from publicly visible and publicly attended locations in federal and state buildings (case ARE 1249095). At the time of this post’s publication, the Supreme Court has yet to issue a decision. However, the Court has defined the case as having general repercussions, beyond the interests of the parties involved, due to the religious and sociocultural aspects involved. The Court has also signaled a desire to ensure that its decision guarantees respect for religious plurality, by granting Amicus Curiae status to the National Association of Evangelical Jurists (ANAJUFRE) and the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB).

The Neutrality of Brazilian Supreme Court Justices: Critical Reflections

The above-mentioned cases demonstrate that the Brazilian Supreme Court, when called on to decide issues involving the secularity of the state, often relies on reasoning that acknowledges and gives deference to the country’s historical and cultural traditions, characterized by deep Catholic religiosity and its representation in public spaces.

Even though the Brazilian Constitution declares a fundamental objective of the state to be the promotion of the common good without prejudice of any kind, including religious discrimination (Article 3.IV), the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence reflects the significant influence of the Catholic faith. Given this influence, one can conclude that secularity has never been an absolute value of the Brazilian state.

Returning to the case of the Bahia priest, one might ask if the opposite scenario (a clergymen of an African-derived religion who publicly and harshly criticizes the Catholic faith and its dogmas and rituals) would result in the same decision (confirmation of his right to criticize the Catholic Church), or if such a scenario would be determined to constitute religious intolerance or hate speech. Based on the Supreme Court’s freedom of speech jurisprudence, one would be justified in concluding that derogatory and disrespectful speech against the Catholic Church would be considered hate speech and banned, since, according to the Supreme Court, incitement to public hatred is not protected by constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression.

In other words, the Court’s normal line of argumentation is that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute and is subject to ethical and legal constraints. However, in the case of the Catholic priest, the hate speech argument seems to have gone unnoticed by the Supreme Court, which was busy focusing on the need to ensure the Catholic faith’s right to proselytize rather than the need to prevent the spread of hatred.

The religious education case similarly challenges the secular nature of the Brazilian state, as it gives preference to confessional religious education endorsed by its concordat with the Holy See. (Such preference would seem to verify that state relations with the Vatican go beyond mere diplomatic issues to involve an element of endorsement of Catholicism.)

Finally, while a judgment in the crucifix case is still pending, the Supreme Court’s apparent reluctance to issue a judgment might witness its desire not to alienate the majority of Brazil’s citizens who adhere to Catholic traditions, by declaring unconstitutional the placement of their faith’s main symbol on public buildings.

All of the above means that the influence of Catholicism rooted in the Portuguese colonization of Brazil remains alive in the Brazilian Supreme Court’s jurisprudence.


[1] S.T.F. Judgment No. 134.682/BA, Relator: Min. Edson Fachin, 29.11.2016.

[2] This argument follows the first Brazilian republican Constitution of 1891, which prohibited religious education in public schools based on the premise that it was not the government’s role to opine on the teaching of a particular religious ideology.

Return to the Series introduction