European Court of Human Rights says Hungary Church law violates human rights

April 8, 2014

EU court of human rights

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has ruled that the Hungary Church law (which came into force in 2012) violates Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

A number of religious communities lost their status as registered churches when the law came into effect. The affected churches had previously been entitled to a certain level of state support for their faith-related activities.

A statement released today by the European Court of Human Rights summarizes the decision:

 The Court found in particular that 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. Furthermore, it was inconsistent with the State’s duty of neutrality in religious matters that religious groups had to apply to Parliament to obtain re-registration as churches and that they were treated differently from incorporated churches with regard to material benefits without any objective grounds.

The Hungarian Church law has been criticized by NGOs and foreign governments ever since being adopted by the Hungarian parliament in 2011. Hungary’s Fidesz-KDNP parliament argued the law was needed to combat fraudulent activities by certain churches.

The law was criticized for portraying certain religious communities in an unfavorable light. in many countries the state’s recognition of a denomination affects one’s social standing. Without official recognition a religious community might be perceived by the public as a suspicious sect.

The European Court of Human Rights decision holds that the Hungarian government’s grounds for refusing to recognize and support religious organizations which had previously enjoyed state recognition unduly denied affected legitimate churches by denying them privileges, subsidies and donations otherwise accepted by recognized churches.

The court recognized the Hungarian government’s legitimate concern regarding problems arising from cases of churches abusing state subsidies without engaging in religious activities. However, the court’s decision also points out that the government had not demonstrated that the problem could not be tackled with less drastic solutions, such as judicial control or the dissolution of churches abusing privileges.

Judgment was rendered by a chamber of seven judges from Italy, Turkey, Hungary, Montenegro, Switzerland, Lithuania, and Iceland.

Szabolcs Hegyi of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (Tarsasag a Szabadsagjobokert, TASZ) told MTI that the Hungarian Church Law was – in Hungarian law – one of the most serious restriction of rights since the fall of communism.

Last year Hungary’s Constitutional Court ruled that churches operating legally were to have their status and legal rights restored. The government has yet to implement the court’s decision.

The European Court of Human Rights decision means the Hungarian government can be liable for damages resulting from the law. Levente Baltay of TASZ told HVG.hu that the European Court’s decision obliges Hungarian authorities to pay damages to the affected churches.

Referenced in this article:

Strasbourgi bírák: a magyar egyházjogi törvény sérti a kisegyházak jogait, MTI.hu; 8 April 2014.

Elkaszálta Strasbourg az egyházjogi törvényt, HVG.hu; 8 April 2014