April 25, 2014

Religious Liberty Officials Warn Of “Dark Cloud over Hungary”

Some religious leaders and human rights activists have called a Hungarian law that passed the parliament in July of 2011 the most “restrictive religious legislation in Europe.”

In Hungary, this law that took effect in 2012 formally recognized only 32 of over 300 faith groups.

This Church Act gives the parliament the authority to decide what religious organization or group gets official recognition. The parliament also decides what church gets financial assistance from the government of Hungary.

Under the previous legislation only the parliament of Hungary decided what organizations received the recognition. Under the legislation put in place in 2012, the government also is involved in the certification process. The government is involved in such decisions as whether the churches or groups might pose a threat to national security.

The Alliance Defending Freedom has told the IRD that the Hungarian government also increased the minimum membership requirement for church groups and organizations by ten times without justification.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) recently condemned this legislation stating that Hungary “breached the freedom of religion and the freedom of association’ when it stripped minor religious groups of their status as churches.

The court ruling stated:

“Distinctions in the legal status granted to religious communities must not portray some of them in an unfavorable light in public opinion… In many countries the denomination as a church and state recognition were the key to social reputation without which a religious community might be seen as a suspicious sect.”

The government of Hungary has stated that the legislation addressed concerns of abuse of tax regulations and other laws by groups claiming to be religious organizations or churches.

Hungary is a member of the European Union (EU).

At the end of 2011, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote a letter to the Hungarian prime minister expressing the U.S. government’s concern about the law.

“The US government is deeply concerned that no modifications have been made to the Law on Churches. Outside observers note the rules for religions to gain recognition are prohibitively cumbersome, and the requirement for two-thirds approval by Parliament politicizes decisions surrounding a basic human right,” Clinton stated.

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), was a co-counsel in the case before the ECHR.

The ADF says the most established churches have not been affected by this ruling. The ADF says most Protestant denominations and all but one of the evangelical groups and even many small Catholic orders lost certification. The ADF says every group associated with Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism lost state backing.

The Institute on Religion and Democracy recently spoke with Roger Kiska, the ADF senior legal counsel in Europe about this legislation.

Kiska told the IRD that since the law was passed in 2011, there have been changes made to this legislation, which have been an improvement.

Kiska also responded that it is unclear why the government introduced the new requirements — although it is not completely unheard of in Europe. Neighboring countries Slovakia and Austria also have very high membership requirements and the European Court of Human Rights has allowed such requirements to exist.

“The biggest problem in Hungary was the speed in which the change came about, the lack of accountability and due process, and the deregistering of churches that had existed for decades.”

Kiska went on to say “perhaps the biggest difficulty with the law was the lack of a proper appeals process. For a church to be registered it required a vote by the parliament with a two-thirds majority. If a church was refused registration, there was no appeal process in court of other administrative bodies. That meant a politically motivated decision not to register a church could go unchallenged under the law.”

The IRD asked Kiska “what is the European Court of Human Rights and what impact does it have?”

Kiska says when this Court delivers a judgment finding a violation; the Court transmits the file to the Committee of Ministers, which confers with the country concerned to decide how the judgment should be executed and how to prevent similar violations of the Convention in the future.

“In addition to paying damages to the victims of the human rights violation, Hungary must now decide what changes should be made to its legislation to prevent further cases in the future,” he added.

Under the new legislation, churches were required to re-register, and only 32 of over of over 300 faith-groups received formal recognition by Parliament to operate as churches. The IRD asked Kiska why so many were eliminated.

“The drastic cut from over 300 congregations to just 14 churches (later to 32) was one of the reasons for the ECHR court case. From the outside, it wasn’t all clear why some churches were included, why other weren’t, and what the bases for the decisions were.  The whole process took place in a very short period of time, with almost no accountability.

Kiska says the Grand Chamber of the Court may review this law.

“The ECHR is made up of five sections and the Grand Chamber,” Kiska explained. “The Grand Chamber is the ECHR’s highest court comprised of 17 judges all of whom sit as judges in the five different sections. The Grand Chamber only accepts a small minority of cases on appeal from one of the five sections.”

The ADF states that the government of Hungary may have had legitimate concern with what it felt was an abuse of their old church law, but the way the concern was handled was very troubling. The ADF hopes other countries will now take note of the ECHR decision and think carefully before they decide to become entangled with the registration and recognition of churches in their country.

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