Wednesday, July 10, 2013

European Court of Human Rights Protects Church Autonomy, Allowing Rejection of Priests' Trade Union

Yesterday in Sindicatul "Pastorul Cel Bun" v. Romania, (ECHR, July 9, 2013), the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in a 11-6 decision upheld a Romanian County Court's denial of registration to a trade union formed  by priests of the Romanian Orthodox Church. The majority opinion, finding a permissible restriction on the right to join trade unions protected in Art. 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, said in part:
136.... Where the organisation of the religious community is at issue, Article 9 of the Convention [freedom of thought, conscience and religion] must be interpreted in the light of Article 11, which safeguards associations against unjustified State interference.... [T]he right of believers to freedom of religion encompasses the expectation that the community will be allowed to function peacefully, free from arbitrary State intervention. The autonomous existence of religious communities is indispensable for pluralism in a democratic society and is an issue at the very heart of the protection which Article 9 affords.
137.  In accordance with the principle of autonomy, the State is prohibited from obliging a religious community to admit new members or to exclude existing ones. Similarly, Article 9 of the Convention does not guarantee any right to dissent within a religious body; in the event of a disagreement over matters of doctrine or organisation between a religious community and one of its members, the individual’s freedom of religion is exercised through his freedom to leave the community....
165.... Respect for the autonomy of religious communities recognised by the State implies, in particular, that the State should accept the right of such communities to react, in accordance with their own rules and interests, to any dissident movements emerging within them that might pose a threat to their cohesion, image or unity.....
168.... [T]he County Court was simply applying the principle of the autonomy of religious communities; its refusal of the applicant union’s registration for failure to comply with the requirement of obtaining the archbishop’s permission was a direct consequence of the right of the religious community concerned to make its own organisational arrangements and to operate in accordance with the provisions of its Statute....
170.... the Statute of the Romanian Orthodox Church does not provide for an absolute ban on members of its clergy forming trade unions to protect their legitimate rights and interests. Accordingly, there is nothing to stop the applicant union’s members from availing themselves of their right under Article 11 of the Convention by forming an association of this kind that pursues aims compatible with the Church’s Statute and does not call into question the Church’s traditional hierarchical structure and decision-making procedures.....
The Court also issued a press release summarizing the decision.  A Becket Fund press release has more information on the case.

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