Sunday, April 13, 2014

European Court Chamber Decision Says Hungary's Church Law Violates Human Rights Convention

In Magyar Keresztény Mennonita Egyház and Others v. Hungary, (ECHR, April 8, 2014), the European Court of Human Rights, in a 5-2 chamber judgment, held that Hungary's 2011 Church Act violates the European Convention on Human Rights.  This excerpt from a press release by the Court  summarizes the majority decision:
As a result of the new Church Act, the applicant communities had lost their status as churches eligible for privileges, subsidies and donations. While the Hungarian Government argued that the Constitutional Court’s decision on the Act had remedied their grievances, the applicant communities found that they could not regain their former status unimpaired. In the Court’s view, it was important that the applicant communities had been recognised as churches at the time when Hungary adhered to the European Convention on Human Rights, and they had remained so until 2011. The Court recognised the Hungarian Government’s legitimate concern as to problems related to a large number of churches formerly registered in the country, some of which abused State subsidies without conducting any genuine religious activities. However, the Government had not demonstrated that the problem it perceived could not be tackled with less drastic solutions, such as judicial control or the dissolution of churches proven to be of abusive character.
Concerning the possibility open to the applicant communities of re-registration as fully incorporated churches, the Court noted that the decision whether or not to grant recognition lay with Parliament, an eminently political body. The Court considered that a situation in which religious communities were reduced to courting political parties for their favourable votes was irreconcilable with the State’s duty of neutrality in this field.... 
The withdrawal of benefits following the new Church Act in Hungary had only concerned certain denominations, including the applicant communities, as they did not fulfill certain criteria put in place by the legislator, notably as to the minimum membership and the duration of their existence. Referring to a report by the European Commission for Democracy through Law (“Venice Commission”) on the Church Act, the Court agreed with the report’s finding that it was an excessive requirement for a religious entity to have existed as an association internationally for at least 100 years or in Hungary for at least 20 years.... 
The Court concluded ...  that the measure imposed by the Church Act had not been “necessary in a democratic society”. There had accordingly been a violation of Article 11 [freedom of assembly and association] read in the light of Article 9 [freedom of thought, conscience and religion].
The decision is not final since the parties may still request review by the Grand Chamber of the Court. [Thanks to Alliance Alert for the lead.]