European Rights Court: Hungary Can’t ‘Play Favorites’ in Registering Churches

Rules That Parliament Cannot Deem Legitimacy of a Religious Body

By Roger Kiska of the Alliance Defending Freedom

On Tuesday, April 8, the Second Section of 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 and that the de-registration (and subsequent refusal to re-register) the applicant churches as churches was a violation of freedom of assembly and freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

The principle facts of Magyar Keresztény Mennonita Egyház and Others v. Hungary, to which Alliance Defending Freedom was co-counsel for several of the affected churches, surround the controversial law which came into force January 2013. Under the old law, registration of churches was a simple and straightforward process which allowed the churches to have legal personality, receive state funding and maintain tax exempt status. The aim of the new law was to prevent the exploitation of state funds by fraudulent churches.

The registration scheme under the new law called for the de-registration of all but a select and sometimes arbitrary listing of churches recognized by the parliament, and then a call for re-registration. Those 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.

The court ultimately ruled that the de-registration and subsequent refusal to re-register the same church hurt the reputation of the churches publically. Seminally it noted that the means used to prevent possible exploitation of state funds was not proportionate to the necessity of maintaining religious liberty in Hungary. The Court further found that 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. It also held that the Parliament, a political body, was an inappropriate venue to adjudicate the legitimacy of a religious body.

The ruling is a landmark judgment in the jurisprudence of the Court setting clear and objective criteria for the question of church registration. The ruling is particularly 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. 

Alliance Defending Freedom is an international Christian legal association dedicated to the protection of religious freedom, life from conception until natural death, and the sanctity of marriage. With more than 40 full time attorneys, 2300 allied lawyers, and having participated in over 500 cases, ADF is a legal leader in the area of religious liberty. ADF is also accredited with the European Parliament, EU Fundamental Rights Agency, Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe and has Consultative Status with the United Nations.

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