[Note: This article was updated to reflect changes in the case that were made public after publication. See below.]
On April 28 a federal judge in Brazil stated as part of an official court ruling that “African-Brazilian cults are not religions” because their “religious events do not contain [the] necessary traits of a religion.” The ruling continues on to define these necessary traits as “a basic text (Quran, Bible, etc.), a hierarchical structure and a God to be worshiped.” (O Globo, 5-20-2014). In the opinion of Federal Judge Eugenio Rosa de Araujo, Candomblé and Umbanda do not meet that definition.The ruling was the outcome of a case filed by the Federal Public Ministry or Ministério Público Federa (MPF) in Rio Janiero. The MPF is the public prosecution office whose mission is “to promote … justice for the good of society and in defense of the democratic rule of law.” The National Association of African Media (Associação Nacional de Mídia Afro or ANMA) contacted the MPF after discovering some offensive videos on YouTube. According to O Globo, these videos promoted and encouraged “prejudice, intolerance and discrimination” against religions of African origin.
The Ministry took ANMA’s case and filed a suit to have the videos removed. To the surprise of MPF, Judge Rosa de Araujo ruled against the case. As a result the offending videos have not been taken down. An example of one of the videos can be seen here:
MPF prosecutors have already filed an appeal. Attorney Jaime Mitropoulos said, “Messages that convey hate speech are not the true face of the Brazilian people, nor represent religious freedom in Brazil.” He also states that “these videos are exceptions and deserve to be treated as exceptions. The Brazilian people do not commune with religious intolerance.” (O Globo, 5-20-2014)
Although this federal ruling was aimed specifically at Candomblé and Umbanda, it could potentially affect the practitioners of other minority religions in the country. Many Pagan and Heathen practices “do not [necessarily] contain … a basic text (Quran, Bible etc.), hierarchical structure, or a God to be worshiped.” They do conform neatly to the definition as laid out by Judge Rosa de Araujo.
Despite the seemingly grave nature of the federal ruling, locals are not taking it seriously. Nero, the Pagan Federation International (PFI)’s Brazlian Coordinator, explains, “It makes no sense … It looks like the judge is a lunatic and his position will be [overturned] very easily when the appeal is decided by the Court.”
Nero happens to also be a lawyer who is watches such cases closely. He explains, “This decision does not change and cannot change anything whatsoever, because it can only be applied to that case — if and when it ever becomes confirmed in the upper courts.” He goes on to explain that no matter what this federal judge believes and tries to execute, he cannot remove the right to religious freedom as written into the Brazilian Constitution.
Those freedoms are laid out in Chapter 1 Article 5 of the Brazilian Constitution:
All persons are equal before the law, without any distinction whatsoever, Brazilians and foreigners residing in the country being ensured of inviolability of the right to life, to liberty, to equality, to security and to property, on the following terms …
6. freedom of conscience and of belief is inviolable, the free exercise of religious cults being ensured and, under the terms of the law, the protection of places of worship and their rites being guaranteed;
7. under the terms of the law, the rendering of religious assistance in civil and military establishments of collective confinement is ensured;
8. no one shall be deprived of any rights by reason of religious belief or philosophical or political conviction, unless he invokes it to exempt himself from a legal obligation required of all and refuses to perform an alternative obligation established by law;
9. the expression of intellectual, artistic, scientific and communications activities is free, independently of censorship or license;
In addition Brazil has no official religion. According to a Religion News Service (RNS) article, Pew Forum reports that “among the 25 most populous countries, Brazil was the most religiously nonrestrictive nation on the planet.”
Despite these legal and social indicators, practitioners of minority faiths are enduring an increasing amount of personal discrimination. This is particularly true for those practicing Candomblé and Umbanda. The increase is believed to be due to what RNS calls a “dynamic religious shift” from Catholicism to Pentecostal or Evangelical Christianity.
Although the federal ruling could be a marker of that shift, Nero does not feel that the case will exacerbate the situation or is evidence of looming legal changes. He speculates that this problematic ruling was simply the act of a rogue judge with a personal agenda. Nero explains, “no judge can overturn the Constitution; not even the Supreme Court.” Nero predicts the case will overturned and “No one will be affected.”
The MPFs appeal is currently asking for the removal of all 15 offensive You Tube videos. If Nero is correct, the MPF will eventually win the case and the videos will be taken down. Such a win could act as legal precedent to help fight future cases of religious discrimination against minority religions in Brazil.
UPDATE: Last night the Judge retracted his statement about African-Brazilian traditions. He recognized them as established religions. The change was announced in an official statement by the press office of the Federal Court of Rio de Janeiro. However the judge did not reverse the decision regarding the removal of the videos. MPF is still pursuing its appeal to have them removed.