Hungary Court: New law violates church rights

April 28, 2014 by  
Filed under newsletter-world

Europe, April 22, 2014: The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that a controversial law in Hungary that stripped many churches of their registration violated their rights.

Hungary introduced the Church Act in 2012In a case brought by various religious communities, the court ruled on 8 April that their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights to freedom of assembly and association and freedom of thought, conscience and religion had been breached.

Hungary introduced the Church Act in 2012 as part of much-criticised changes to its constitution and associated laws. Over 300 religious groups – including several Christian denominations – lost official recognition and with it certain monetary and fiscal advantages, such as tax exemptions and subsidies, for their faith-related activities. Only 14 retained state backing.

The Church Act aimed to address problems relating to the exploitation of state funds by groups formerly registered as churches that were not conducting any genuine religious activities. The court recognised Hungary’s “legitimate concern” regarding this issue but said:

The Hungarian Government had not shown that there were not any other, less drastic solutions to problems relating to abuse of state subsidies by certain churches than to de-register the applicant communities.

The religious communities that took their case to the ECHR argued that they had been discriminated against on account of their status as religious minorities. For a religious group to be recognised under the new Church Act, it had to meet criteria including a minimum membership and duration of existence, requirements deemed “excessive” by ECHR.

The court’s ruling stated:

Distinctions in the legal status granted to religious communities must not portray some of them in an unfavourable light in public opinion… In many countries the denomination as a church and state recognition were the key to social reputation without which a religious community might be seen as a suspicious sect.

A number of major Protestant denominations, including Episcopalians, Methodists and all but one of the evangelical groups, as well as many small Catholic orders, were decertified. Every version of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism lost state backing.

Following a ruling by the Hungarian Constitutional Court that certain provisions of the Church Act were unconstitutional, new legislation was adopted in 2013 that allowed deregistered religious communities again to refer to themselves as churches. But the law continued to apply in that the communities had to obtain Parliamentary backing to be registered as “incorporated churches” in order to regain the monetary and fiscal advantages to which they had previously been entitled.

– barnabas team

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