Among many other issues, also the new Hungarian church law has received much criticism, while the government denies that the new law limits the freedom to religion. They are right: it does not violate the freedom to religion. Anyone is free to practice their religion as long as it doesn’t violate the constitution. The law fails to guarantee the freedom from religion, and it violates the principle of the equality of all citizens regardless of their religious convictions.
Law 206 of 2011 was passed on 30th December, after the previous law (with almost the same text) was retracted just before the constitutional court (Alkotmánybíróság) had it cancelled—not because of its contents, but solely for procedural reasons. The title of the law claims a wider scope: it is the Law on the right to the freedom of religion and conscience, and the legal status of churches, denominations and religious communities. Let’s see if it meets its claim.
The law consists of three parts and a preamble. The latter details the importance of churches as conveyors of values and of their role in the building of communities as well as in: education, health, social, family, children and youth, culture, environmentalism, sports and other issues. ‘Church’ is put on one level with ‘people’ and ‘family’. There are two allusions to secularism: the notion of the neutrality of the state in religious questions—but only with regard to the peaceful cohabitation of religious communities, and the separation of church and state—with the added clause that church and state cooperate, because that’s mutually advantageous.
The right to the freedom of religion and conscience is detailed in the very short chapter I, which is mostly a citation from the constitution. Religious freedom is definitely perceived as the freedom to practice one’s religion. The right not to practice is guaranteed only indirectly, through the right to the freedom of conscience. The non-discrimination clause’s wording outlaws only discrimination because of religious practice, but not discrimination on grounds of no religious affiliation, and not even discrimination on grounds of not practising one’s affiliation or not participating in religious rites. The text doesn’t prevent you explicitly from being forced to participate in religious services, either (as many schools have been turned into church institutions, in some cases with no alternative available locally, this is by no means a theoretical question but a very real issue).
Chapter II and IV detail the privileges given to religious communities granted church status by the state. These include the following:
– exemption from non-discrimination rules in selecting employees (in general–there is no limitation to religious functions) (13.§(2)),
– special protection for employees, church services, sacred places, as well as copyright protection for its name, symbols and rites (13.§(4), 25.§),
– protection of confessional secrets (without limitations whatsoever) (13.§(3)),
– no bookkeeping required and no audits for their finances relating to religious activities, not even for monies received from the state budget, (19.§(4)),
– many activities are not considered to be for profit even if they generate an income (even letting property if the building only partly used for religious purposes, or selling sports equipment, or pension pool investments) (20.§),
– schools and social institutions are financed with the same rates as state institutions [while institutions managed by civil organisations receive only get ca. half of this amount] (19.§(4)),
– the right to give their opinion in the preparation of new legislation(22.§),
– the right to provide services in prisons, in the military and in hospitals (24.§ (2)),
– the right to provide religious education in schools: the school has to provide rooms and a schedule, while the teachers of religion are paid by the state (which was also the case before) (24.§ (1)),
– the right to pursue religious activities in state colleges and universities, the institutions have to provide rooms (24.§ (1)).
However, there is one item that is important regarding customer protection: any church person has to declare their affiliation when they are providing services to people outside their community that are directly or indirectly linked to their affiliation (25.§ (2)).
As far as I know, no one has yet protested against these privileges: both national and international criticism only aim at making it easier to get into the club but not against the principle of favouring religious communities and their social services over civil organisations. Because that’s not easy: the law conveys the status of church to 14 Christian and Jewish communities. If you want to become privileged, you need 1000 supporters (not necessarily followers), 20 years of operation as civil organisation in Hungary, or 100 years of international activity, and your organisation must be „religious”. On the two latter criteria, the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (at present a physicist, József Pálinkás, who was a Fidesz-minister 10 years ago and who has already set up a group where the person closest to a scientific approach on religion is a catholic canon law specialist of the catholic university) gives his opinion. Besides him, you have to convince the relevant committee of the parliament, and finally, two thirds of the members of parliament (because you are changing a law that may be modified only by a two third majority).
Nearly 400 religious communities have been established until 2011, some of them for financial reasons: if they had remained a non religious civil organisation, they wouldn’t have been able to operate their schools and homes for elderly and disabled. One of the declared aims of the legislators was to weed these ‘busyness churches’ (“bizniszegyház”) out. But the solution is simply to provide state financing based on the services provided, and not based on the type of organisation providing them – instead of forcing charities to pose as churches.
The text of the law is availabe here (in Hungarian): http://www.magyarkozlony.hu/pdf/11546