Friday, June 13, 2014

European Court Upholds Spain's Dismissal of Priest As Public School Teacher

In Martinez v. Spain, (ECHR, June 12, 2014), the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, in a 9-8 decision, held that there had not been a violation of a Catholic priest's rights under Art. 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights when he was not renewed as teacher of Catholic religion and ethics in a State secondary school in Spain.  Art. 8 deals with respect for private and family life.

The priest, Fr. Jose Martinez, was ordained in 1961.  He applied for a dispensation from celibacy in 1984, but when he did not receive a response by the following year he married in a civil ceremony. He and his wife had 5 children.  Martinez taught in a state high school from 1991 until 1997 when the Vatican granted his dispensation from celibacy, but at the same time ruled that he could no longer teach religion in a state school unless the local bishop decided otherwise. The Vatican's ruling obligated his removal from his position in the state school pursuant to an agreement between Spain and the Holy See. This ruling followed publication of an article in a Spanish newspaper about the "Movement for Optional Celibacy of Priests" in which Martinez was an active member. The article, illustrated with a picture of Martinez and his family, quoted members' views on abortion, divorce, sexuality and contraception which were contrary to those of the Church.

The court said in part:
the applicant ... must have been aware, in accepting the task of teaching Catholic religion, of the potential consequences of the heightened duty of loyalty vis-à-vis the Catholic Church by which he thus became bound, for the purpose, in particular, of preserving the credibility of his teaching....
Focusing on the Church's rights of autonomy, the court said:
the right of believers to freedom of religion encompasses the expectation that they will be allowed to associate freely, without arbitrary State intervention. The autonomous existence of religious communities is indispensable for pluralism in a democratic society and is thus an issue at the very heart of the protection which Article 9 of the Convention affords.
Four separate dissenting opinions were also filed. The Court also issued a press release summarizing the 65 pages of decisions. The Becket Fund issued a press release on the decision applauding the vindication of church autonomy and criticizing the dissent by Judge Dedov that strongly takes issue with the Catholic Church's rules on celibacy for priests.