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European Court rules Hungarian church act violates freedom of religion

Fire acrobats perform during a gathering to celebrate peace in front of the Main Cathedral in Budapest, 21 March 2009
Fire acrobats perform during a gathering to celebrate peace in front of the Main Cathedral in Budapest, 21 March 2009

REUTERS/Karoly Arvai

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has rejected the referral request of the Hungarian government, making the Court's original ruling against the government final.

Many lawfully existing and operating churches in Hungary, including nine represented by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for a decision on the country's 2012 Church Act, which forced all churches to go through a re-regulation process, during which the government could decide which churches will be given status as such and receive state subsidies. Many churches that were out of favor with the government failed to regain their status as churches. In their application to the Court, they claimed that the law was discriminatory and violated the right to freedom of religion.

The ECHR rendered judgment in the case Magyar Keresztény Mennonita Egyház and Others v. Hungary on April 8, 2014, determining that the Church Act violated the applicant churches' rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and freedom of association protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Court wrote that “in removing the applicants' church status altogether rather than applying less stringent measures, in establishing a politically tainted re-registration procedure, whose justification is open to doubt as such, and finally, in treating the applicants differently from the incorporated churches not only in the possibilities of cooperation but also in securing benefits for the purposes of faith-related activities, the Hungarian authorities neglected their duty of neutrality.” The Court claimed there was no pressing social need in a democratic society to justify these legislative steps.

The Hungarian government requested to refer the case to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR. The Grand Chamber accepts referrals only in exceptional cases and decides freely on the admissibility of the request. In this case, the five-judge panel of the Grand Chamber found not reason to reassess the original verdict, thereby making it final.

The direct consequence of the final judgment is that the Hungarian government must now reach an agreement with the applicant churches on the restoration of their status and on just compensation for any damages. If an agreement has not been reached within six months, the ECHR will determine these issues for the parties.

The Hungarian Constitutional Court also established the unconstitutionality of the Church Act last year (Decision 6/2013 [III. 1.]), but instead of initiating legislation that would restore freedom of religion and religious equality, the government pushed ahead with the law by amending the Fundamental Law of Hungary.

Therefore, in light of the judgment of the ECHR, both the Church Act and the Fundamental Law, in its current form, violate the Convention on Human Rights. According to the HCLU, this decision should sober the government and make it realize that it cannot continue this assault on religious freedom. Beyond restoring the status of the applicant churches and compensating them, Hungary also must eliminate the Church Act and the amendments made to the Fundamental Law.

In case of failing to bring the law in line with the Convention, Hungary shall bear the responsibility of the clear breach of its international obligations.

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