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ECHR Grand Chamber reaffirms freedom of religious institutions to regulate own affairs

STRASBOURG, France – On Thursday, the highest chamber of the European Court of Human Rights affirmed the freedom of churches to regulate their own affairs as a basic right deserving protection in all 47 of the Council of Europe’s member states.

In the case Nagy v. Hungary, the ECHR’s Grand Chamber upheld the right of churches to “ecclesiastical courts and the discipline of ministers.” ADF International was the only organization to file an expert brief in the case, arguing that, according to international law, churches and other religious organizations should be able to manage their internal affairs without government interference.

“The government has no place interfering in the relationship between a church and its leaders,” said ADF International Deputy Director Paul Coleman. “ADF International intervened in this case to highlight that time-honored principle. International law, and especially the European Convention on Human Rights, protects this fundamental freedom, and the Grand Chamber has now affirmed this.”

In 2009, Mr. Karoly Nagy filed an application with the ECHR complaining that Hungary’s courts refused to weigh in on a matter of internal church discipline. The dispute dates back to 2005, when an ecclesiastical court removed Nagy from his pastoral post following church disciplinary proceedings that had been brought against him. A second ecclesiastical court upheld this decision and dismissed Nagy’s appeal. The case went to the Hungarian Supreme Court, which refused to accept jurisdiction because ecclesiastical law was applicable in the case.

Nagy took the case to the ECHR, and its Second Section issued a judgment in 2015 that ruled against him and upheld church autonomy.

“The Grand Chamber’s judgment dismissed Nagy’s claim that he was entitled to use the state courts against a church when he was unhappy with the decisions of the internal ecclesiastical courts,” Coleman explained. “This decision is welcome because it reinforces the rights and freedoms of religious believers in all 47 member states of the Council of Europe to manage their own affairs without unwarranted external interference.”

ADF International is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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