European Human-Rights Court Protects Churches’ Autonomy

A representative from Alliance Defending Freedom says the decision protects 'the institutional freedom of faith groups across Europe.'

(photo: CNA/UnSplash)

STRASBOURG, France — A religious-freedom legal group has praised a decision by the European Court on Human Rights, saying it protects churches from government interference.

“The right to church autonomy is protected by the European Convention on Human Rights and is necessary for religious institutions and even democracy itself to function properly,” Paul Coleman, international senior legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom International, said Dec. 3.

Coleman said the decision protects “the institutional freedom of faith groups across Europe.”

In 2009, Hungarian Calvinist Church minister Karoly Nagy filed a case with the European Court of Human Rights objecting that Hungary’s courts declined to hear his case. He claimed his removal as a pastor violated Hungarian employment law.

In 2005, he had faced church disciplinary proceedings for his statements in a local newspaper charging that state subsidies had been paid unlawfully to a Calvinist boarding school, according to the European Court of Human Rights’ Dec. 1 decision.

After the proceedings, an ecclesiastical court removed him from his pastoral post. A higher church court upheld the decision and dismissed Nagy’s appeal.

Nagy then sought legal action from the Hungarian courts. The Hungarian Supreme Court refused to accept jurisdiction in the case, saying the parties in the case had “a pastoral service relationship” that falls under ecclesiastical law, not labor law.

Alliance Defending Freedom International filed a legal brief in the European court. The brief said churches and religious organizations have the right to manage internal affairs without interference from the government or other state bodies.

The brief said the European court’s previous case law protected religious freedom as a democratic cornerstone and as “one of the elements that make up the identity of believers and their conception of life.”

Coleman connected the European human-rights court’s decision to the Magna Carta, a legal document from the year 1215 contracted between the king of England and English barons. He said the document was pioneering for recognizing the autonomy of the Catholic Church in England.

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