A Brazil federal ruling states Candomblé and Umbanda are not religions

Heather Greene —  May 21, 2014 — 19 Comments

[Note: This article was updated to reflect changes in the case that were made public after publication. See below.]

BRAZIL — 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.

Yemanja Festival 2008 [Photo Credit: Toluaye/Public Domain]

Yemanja Festival 2008 [Photo Credit: Toluaye/Public Domain]

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.

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.
  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    I’d lay odds that the Judge is of a virulent form of Christianity.

    It seems that we are seeing an increase of Christian-originated attacks on other beliefs across the world. Doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s just a case of Christianity as normal. (Tolerance and acceptance being very recent additions to the practices of that brand of religion.)

  • Kelley

    Apparently in Brazil, Buddhism would not be protected as a religion either since there is no “god.” Who created that definition of religion? Not all religions have sacred texts, not all have “god” per se, and only organized religions have hierarchies.

  • This is another example of the “dominant religious lens factor” (a phrase used by Patrick McCollum), a viewing of all spiritual practices from the particular perspective of the majority religion(s). It is often not intentional, but rather, comes out of ignorance of other faiths. That is where education about other faiths must come in. Ignorance is a scary thing when it is found in the people who are in positions of power.

  • David Pollard

    Hmmm… this would pretty much disqualify Unitarian Universalism (as practiced in the US) from being considered a religion in Brazil.

  • Fivesight

    This is an utterly ridiculous ploy by a racist x-tian fanatic to stamp out African Diasporic spiritual practices. This kind of game needs to stopped before it spreads, because there are plenty of people here in North America with plenty of money ready to do the same thing. I wonder if some of them are involved behind the scenes?

    • Franklin_Evans

      I reject the “same thing will happen here” slippery slope, so I ask out of sincere curiousity: can you name the laws, just at the federal level, that would have to be changed or repealed to make that possible? The only alternative would be an outright revolution, something bringing a Heinleinian style “Prophet” government.

      • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

        People are already trying much the same thing, are they not?

        • @Leoht, Yes. We had a judge here in Indianapolis, Indiana that wouldn’t allow a child of Wiccan parents who were divorcing to expose the child to “non-mainstream” religious practices. And yes BOTH parents were Wiccan. The judge took it upon himself to define what was and what wasn’t “mainstream”. Fortunately some national rights groups were able to get this changed. So, yes, it can happen here. However, as long as there are people standing up for the freedom of religion and the first amendment, these rulings do not stand permanently.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Cerowain has nailed it here. A federal judiciary drawn from all over a sprawling country will get some wack-jobs on the bench, trying to impose their own religious wing-dings. But a working appeals system and a citizenry ready to agitate for its rights will neutralize the nutty stuff.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            Just have to maintain that readiness.

          • Roi de Guerre

            Here is the appellate court decision overturning the judge.

            On page 6_:
            Judge: “People might think that you worship Satan.”
            Father: “I can’t worship something if i don’t believe in it.”

            So first, Dad, good answer!

            Second the judge is displaying a view through a particular Christian lens; certain things are OK, everything else is associated with evil.

            Maybe we should put together an information packet on “non-mainstream religions” that the judiciary can use in cases like this.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Thanks for the cite, Roi. I understand it’s rare this kind of wing-ding actually gets appealed, let alone reversed. My gut reaction to the appellate judge was that it’s a pity he didn’t invoke the First Amendment, but upon reflection I approve: What he did was set a high bar (at least in Indiana) for this kind of interference in future cases — prove harm.

          • Northern_Light_27

            I think there’s a paradox for Dominionists that’s good for us. They can only get so much of their desires reified by stealth, and the more people get a good look at what they’re about, the more people become aware and concerned over it. The danger, as I see it, has always been apathy in the populace and a tendency to dismiss radical Christians as one-off kooks instead of seeing the connections between them. That Rachel Maddow gave so much coverage to Jeff Sharlet’s book on The Family surprised and gratified me (and not that it was Maddow in particular, but seeing that much national coverage at all was a pleasant surprise). I think that there would be tremendous alarm in the US if and when people start grasping the actual aims and scope of Dominionism, the problem is that we don’t know how much damage they’d do before people finally twig to it. (And then, whether they’d draw the right conclusions. The 2012 Republican primary was an eye-opener for a lot of people, but people coming out of it with “Republicans are crazy Christians” aren’t getting the right conclusion and aren’t seeing the “steeple-jacking” problem for what it is.)

        • kenofken

          It has happened and is happening every day in some form or another. Read up on the Maestrum of Cybele or the VA headstone issue or the problems getting pagan chaplains in the military or prisons. The religious right’s entire strategy is to establish their religion as the one “real” one before the law.

        • Bianca Bradley


          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            Care to elaborate on that one?

          • kenofken

            The economics of trolling don’t work if you have to spend time constructing an actual argument!

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    Ah, yes, the old “I have a religion; you belong to a cult” gambit. I hope the people quoted are correct and this ruling gets overturned.