HCLU lawyer Szabolcs Hegyi: “The Church Law pushed the issue of religious freedom in Hungary back to the 19th century”

February 16, 2017

Twice a week, Szabolcs Hegyi, PhD, carpools from Budapest up to the northeastern city of Miskolc, where he teaches at the University of Miskolc Law School. Hegyi joined the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union in June 2011, just one month before Hungary’s Fidesz-KDNP parliamentary supermajority adopted the controversial Church Act of 2011. Since then, Hegyi has run up against the controversial law over and over again.

“The law was adopted and we simply couldn’t afford not to deal with it,” Hegyi says. “Since then, we have initiated procedures and continuously deal with the Church Law.”

The Church Act is a so-called “cardinal law”, which means that it requires two-thirds support in parliament to amend (we’ll touch on this later). This law would go on to become an important piece of legislation, emblematic of just how much Hungary’s rule of law has eroded.

Lawsuits filed in Hungary against the Church Law have gone nowhere. The Constitutional Court struck it down but it still remains on the books. Even the country’s Fundamental Law was amended to make the concerned rules constitutional. Some of the churches stripped of their legal recognition by the law turned to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

In early 2014, the Strasbourg court ruled against the Hungarian state, declaring the law discriminatory and in violation of Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights on freedom of speech, thought and conscience. A subsequent appeal by the Hungarian government was shot down by the court six months later, rendering its verdict final.

The Strasbourg court’s ruling compelled the Hungarian state to do two things: first, to compensate the affected churches for any financial damages incurred as a result of losing their status; second, to reinstate the legal status of the churches adversely affected by the law.

Fidesz’s micro-party coalition partner, KDNP (Christian Democratic People’s Party), was outraged by the notion that the law would have to be changed, and Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, of the KDNP. threatened to use every tool at his disposal to prevent a new law from being adopted. Meanwhile, Fidesz-KDNP lost its parliamentary supermajority, meaning it could no longer amend the constitution and the cardinal laws unilaterally. But rumors were circulating that the government was planning to amend the unlawful law. However, the proposal to do so was not endorsed by opposition MPs, and it remained on the books in its original form.

Fidesz pointed fingers at the opposition for not wanting to conform to European Convention of Human Rights norms, but at the time an opposition MP told the Beacon that the amendment was just as bad as the original. Hungarian government officials continue to claim there is religious freedom in Hungary.

“Yes, that’s true,” Hegyi says. “There is freedom of religion in Hungary, on the individual level. There is no one in Hungary who is persecuted because of his or her religion — except Muslim refugees, but that is a very different matter. The Church Law violates the right to religious freedom because it stripped churches of their legal standing.

“It does not affect the individual right to religious freedom. Rather the law curtails the conditions on which churches can be founded,” he continued. “Furthermore, the new law applies retroactively to church statuses — therefore, already existing churches were stripped of their legal status if they could not meet the new conditions of the new law.”

Aside from applying to churches retroactively, the law stipulates that the National Assembly will be the ultimate arbiter of just which religious organizations can be granted the official church status. Hegyi explains that the law essentially downgraded scores of churches, stripping them of the privileged treatment they receive from the state.

“The transition from church to religious organization went smoothly for some churches, they had the financial and human resources necessary to make this adjustment. But there were churches who were unable to make this transition and ended up closing down. Other churches moved their activities outside of the country, leaving Hungary behind. Many of the churches closed, and a few transitioned to operating as religious organizations.”

This state-imposed loss of status also resulted in the affected churches not being able to collect Hungary’s “religious” 1 percent income tax designation — another element criticized by the Strasbourg court.

“To this day, this unlawful law is on the books and the Fundamental Law continues to contain those passages which make this law unlawful. In 2016, as a result of the Strasbourg court’s decision, the government was required to pay enormous damages to those churches who served as plaintiffs in the Strasbourg case — sums in the billions,” Hegyi says.

But because the law has not been amended to conform with European norms, the abuses continue to this day. This means that the damages incurred by the affected churches are continuing.

Szabolcs Hegyi

What are these damages?

Hegyi says the damages differ from church to church, but most commonly result from the loss of the religious 1 percent personal income tax designation.

“When these churches were stripped of their status, they lost their right to collect the religious 1 percent personal income tax designations from their supporters. Beyond this, these churches were also stripped of funds not related to faith-based activities, including health-care services, social work and education. In many cases, churches stripped of their status were forced to cease these activities because they were not receiving the same amount of state subsidies for undertaking the work,” he says.

When asked whether he agrees with statements from government officials that “there is a separation of church and state in Hungary,” Hegyi says the controversial Church Act proves the opposite is the case.

“If we analyze … how the church status can be obtained and under what conditions, and if we consider the rules governing the financing of churches … that establish preferential treatment of churches in various areas of life, then we see that there are a few churches that government provides significant funding for. Through the law, the state offers these same churches privileged treatment, and these churches operate quasi-monopolies in certain areas.”

Hegyi received a religious education but is not religious. He says he takes this issue seriously because of his respect for tradition.

“Religious freedom has been one of the oldest rights fought for over the course of European history. It’s a part of a culture, and it was one of the first freedoms granted by European constitutions,” he says. “We Hungarians can be proud that in 1568, the National Assembly at Torda was the first to announce religious tolerance in Europe. When looking at the history of Hungary, we can clearly see those points when religious freedom expanded to include more and more groups of people. From this perspective, the Church Act of 1990 was one of the points which the [2011] Church Law completely unraveled in a process that pushed the issue of religious freedom in Hungary back to the 19th century.”

Hegyi says that if someone is free and his or her freedom is curtailed in an arbitrary way, then that person really has no reason to believe in freedom.

“I would expand this thought a bit more to say that this isn’t only about the religious freedom, it’s also about the freedom of conscience. I do not consider myself a religious person, but I think it’s important that I be allowed to be an atheist if I so choose. I should have the freedom to decide for myself whether or not I want to belong to a certain religion. And I think this right should be the same even for those who consider themselves to be religious.”

How Hungarians have responded to the Church Act

When asked whether he thinks religious freedom is a hot topic for Hungarians today, Hegyi says it isn’t.

“What we see from our work in the past five years is that from the perspective of a jurist, from the perspective of fundamental rights, this law is rather anomalous. The Strasbourg court ruling is very significant. Even the Hungarian Constitutional Court ruled against the law. There’s a lot of money at stake. And still the people do not seem to care about it,” he says.

Last spring, the HCLU organized a campaign to gather signatures in hopes of pressuring lawmakers to amend the law.

“I wouldn’t say the campaign was unsuccessful but it did not mobilize the amount of people we hoped it would,” Hegyi says. “One reason might be that the Hungarian citizens have such a high stimulus threshold for issues like this. There are so many abuses of freedoms in Hungary that the Church Act simply isn’t even noticed. It might also be because very few people in Hungary are actually religious. This, in turn, may suggest that few people treat the issue of establishing normal treatment of the churches so seriously. Those who are religious, by and large, are members of those churches which are the beneficiaries of this system, so it’s not in their interest to be critical of key parts of the current law.”

The attacks on NGOs

Regarding the government’s plans to force employees of NGOs to submit asset declarations, Hegyi says he doesn’t think the government would stop there. In countries where this process has already gained a foothold, for example in Russia, Egypt and Israel, asset declarations are just the beginning of a process that eventually expands into stigmatization, forced registration as foreign agents and investigations. Ultimately, this all takes place with the aim of totally annihilating these groups.

“I am preparing for a long and drawn-out battle,” he says. “What we see is that this situation in Hungary isn’t unique to civil society. It’s affecting all independent people and institutions. The space for independent activity is shrinking. We just have to accept that we must hunker down for the foreseeable future. We also aren’t the only place in the world where this is happening. We have to dedicate more time, energy and resources to the process of continuously adapting to this situation.

“I do this because I love doing it. I like being a lawyer, I enjoy dealing with legal issues. I believe in fundamental rights. I think that dealing with fundamental rights means dealing with issues that are important to the public and contribute toward the public good. As pathetic as that sounds, the reason I do this is because I love my homeland.”