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Supreme Court of the United States

European Court of Human Rights Issues Landmark Ruling Protecting Church Autonomy

October 17, 2017

Things operate a bit different in Europe when it comes to churches.

Europe does not have a history of a strict separation of church and state where the state does not interfere in the internal affairs of the church. In fact, some countries in Europe still have state churches, for example, the Church of England.

Despite the close relationship between church and state in Europe, there exists a very real threat for some countries to stifle religious freedom. Last year, Hungary passed a Church Act requiring churches to register with the State to have legal status and maintain tax exempt status, among other things.

Under the old law in Hungary, registering a church was a simple and straightforward task. But the 2013 Church Act changed that, adding several controversial provisions that stifled the right of churches in Hungary to even exist.

The Church Act de-registered all but a select and arbitrary listing of churches recognized by the parliament. Then, the churches that were de-registered were required to register anew under the new law that contained new criteria for registration. Those churches who did not meet the new criteria (despite the fact that several of the automatically registered churches did not meet the criteria) could no longer exist as churches and enjoy the benefits therein. The only means of appeal was to the Parliament itself.

But on Tuesday, April 8, the European Court of Human Rights ruled decisively and comprehensively that Hungary’s new Church Act was contrary to the principles of the European Convention of Human Rights. Alliance Defending Freedom was co-counsel for several churches in the case of Magyar Keresztény Mennonita Egyház and Others v. Hungary.

The Court held that the de-registration (and subsequent refusal to re-register) certain churches was a violation of freedom of assembly and freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It also ruled:

    • The de-registration and subsequent refusal to re-register the same church hurt the reputation of the churches publicly.

    • The law infringed upon the religious liberty of churches in Hungary.

    • The new requirements to register (that the church must be recognized internationally for at least 100 years or within Hungary for at least 20 years for example) were excessive.

    • And that the Parliament, a political body, was an inappropriate venue to adjudicate the legitimacy of a religious body.

The ruling is a landmark judgment protecting churches from discriminatory treatment in Hungary, and also important for large portions of Central, Eastern and Mediterranean Europe where registration questions loom large and government intervention can be overly intrusive.

Far from being a victory only for Christians in Hungary, the judgment is truly a victory for religious freedom for all Europeans.

The case illustrates the need for churches to remain vigilant against governmental intrusion.  Alliance Defending Freedom is active across the world in protecting and defending the right of the Church to “be the Church” and to minister freely without hindrance from discrimination by the government.

If your church is experiencing discrimination or governmental hindrance, contact us so an attorney can review your situation.

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