March 26, 2012
Posted by on
The Venice Commission has published their report on the new Hungarian church law last week. The commission examined the text of law CCVI of 2011 solely regarding the freedom to profess religion failing both to take into consideration aspects of freedom from religion and the context of the law.
As I mentioned in an earlier post (https://secularhungary.wordpress.com/2012/01/17/the-new-church-law/), law CCVI of 2011 does not violate the right to profess a religion: religion can be explicitly exercised also outside recognised churches, alone or in groups. Although the decision whether a religious community is granted church status or not is highly arbitrary, and in spite of other issues that question whether this legislation is within the rule of law, religious communities that do not enjoy church privileges are still entitled to a legal entity in the form of civil organization (as the Commission itself notes). The commission recognizes that the law gives churches an impressive amount of rights and benefits (96), while they finally raise very few concerns only. The requirements for applying for church status are on the harder side, procedure for recognition and de-recognition offers not enough guarantees for objectivity and impartiality, and the law fails to specify the legal remedies. The commission is very concerned about the deregistration process, especially since it finds no objective and reasonable justification is given for privileging 32 (as of February 2012) churches against hundreds of other communities. However, the commission seems to not even consider other aspects of religious freedom.
While the commission is aware that the deregistration of churches, these communities will also loose lawful subsidies received for their social and educational services (88), it fails to question whether granting such subsidies to churches only – and not to religious communities without church status and non religious associations providing exactly these same services – is not discriminatory. Especially considering that these subsidies are not just somewhat different: social and educational institutions maintained by churches receive twice the amount from the central budget as compared to local governments and non religious civil organizations. The latter have to find other sources to cover ca. half of the running costs of their institutions. Which in practice means that in order to set up a school or a social institution (e.g. a home for the elderly), you have to be a church.
Which gets us to the question of the ‘abuse’ of state funding by religious organisations and to the high number of religious communities. Some of them have been established for financial reasons, but by far not solely for illicit and harmful purposes. The ratio between funding from the state for, let’s say a home caring for the elderly or a school for disadvantaged roma kids, and its costs has become gradually worse over the last two decades. If this home happened to be non religious one, the local government or the association maintaining it had to contribute more and more own funds to cover the running costs. While richer towns with more income were able to pay, poorer ones and civil organisations were not. They had two choices: closing their services or setting up a local church which would double the subsidies from the central budget.
This is certainly not an elegant solution and not an honest one. But under these special conditions that provide higher subsidies for church services than for secular ones, it’s no wonder this was the only way out for some.
The new church law does have consequences also in this regard: social and educational services that were maintained by pro forma churches will be taken over by ‘real churches’ who will want to enforce their teachings among clients who actually did not mean to sign up for a religious service in the first place.
The solution for the problem of ‘business churches’ and for the concerns of the Venice Commission in their par. 88 is actually too easy: just distribute subsidies for services without religious discrimination.