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The Controversial Hungarian Law on Churches, by: Robert Almosd

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After its landslide victory during the April 2010 parliamentary elections, the coalition of Fidesz (Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége-Magyar Polgári Szövetség,(in English, Alliance of Young Democrats-Hungarian Civic Union ) and KDNP (Kereszténydemokrata Néppárt, Christian,( in English, Christian Democratic People’s Party) won an unprecedented two-third majority in the Hungarian National Assembly. The new Parliament did not waste time, and between May 14, 2010 and March 2, 2012, lawmakers passed approximately 595 measures, including 157 new laws to restructure Hungary. Many of these new measures met with fierce domestic and international concerns that democracy was being left behind. Among these controversial laws were the Fundamental Law replacing Hungary’s Constitution and the so-called cardinal laws requiring a two-third majority of Parliament. Other controversial laws such as the new media regulation; the law on the status of judges and the powers of the Constitutional Court; the statute regulating the Hungarian Central Bank, and the new law on churches created fear of restrictions on democratic institutions in Hungary severely curbing prior freedoms.

Act C of 2011 on the Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions and Religious Communities (Law on Churches) was enacted on July 12, 2011. According to a Huffington Post article, the new measure granted legal recognition to only 14 of the 358 registered churches and religious association in Hungary. Others have to reapply for legal recognition, which require a three-third majority vote Parliament, where the Fidesz-KDNP has a three-third of the seats. Under the new law, the recognition of a religious organization as a church requires at least 1,000 members and either 100 years of international presence or 20 years presence in Hungary. The 14 denomination included the Reformed, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox churches, as well as Jewish congregations. The law excluded such historic churches, in some cases with over a 100-year presence in Hungary, as Hungary’s Church of God, the Hungarian Methodist Church, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the local Church of England, as well as the Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Baha’i communities.

Proponents of the Law on Churches, including some of the larger denominations, welcome the fact that it will be more difficult to register religious organizations as churches in Hungary. The government defends the measure claiming that the previous, 1990 Act on Religion was too liberal. The Financial Times (FT), quoting a government spokesman writes that the previous law made it possible to set up so-called “business churches” and “nonsense religions” such as the “Worshippers of the Womb” to take advantage of tax breaks and other benefits. According to the government, some of these churches had nothing to do with religion. The government also argues that the law is just another effort to strengthen Hungary’s economy by preventing sham religious groups to take advantage of financial benefits available to churches. Proponents also emphasize that the new measure does not prevent the unrecognized religious groups from meeting, worshiping, and evangelizing. A politics.hu article said that the American Hungarian Federation (AHF) defended the government from recent harsh and often unfair criticism. AHF reminded that the Hungarian Constitutional Court partially annulled the original statute in December 2011 and that legal recognition would be extended to more denominations. The government and leaders of churches favored by the new law also noted that a broad consultation with religious leaders had preceded the enactment of the new law.

Opponents of the Law on Churches, according to the same FT article, including religious and civil organizations, as well as certain European bodies and the United States, charged that the new measure seriously restricted the fundamental right of freedom of religion. For example, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) said that the new law discriminates against smaller and newer denominations. According to ENInews, in a petition to Parliament by HCLU and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, signed also by Human Rights Without Frontiers and the Southern Baptist Convention among others, the law is a “serious setback for religious freedom in Hungary.” The article also quotes the US based Institute on Religion and Public Policy saying that the law “recalled “the Soviet Past” and violated “fundamental international human rights law” and should be viewed as “a danger to all Hungarian society and a terrible indication of the state of democracy in the country.” The opponents also countered the government’s argument stating that the Law on Churches constitutes a disproportionate answer to the alleged abuse by some religious groups; “business churches” and other abusers of the previous system could have been dealt with by different legal actions. Opponents also doubt that it is the National Assembly is competent to evaluate what organizations should be recognized as churches. The critics rebut the proponents’ preliminary consultation arguments complaining that the text passed by the National Assembly was utterly different from the version they received before.

Opponents, including churches and private individuals, filed petitions with the Hungarian Constitutional Court to challenge the new measure. On December 19, 2011, the Court struck down on technical grounds certain provisions of the law that was set to become effective on January 1, 2012. Punch and Politics.hu reported that despite the deep concerns of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several US congressmen expressed in separate letters to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Parliament passed the bill again as Act CCVI of 2011. Secretary Clinton said in her letter that the new law “makes the recognition of churches and religions difficult or even impossible, and the fact that … the approval of two-thirds of the parliament is necessary makes the decision on fundamental human rights unduly political.” Politics.hu wrote in an article that on February 16, 2012, the plenary session of the European Parliament adopted a resolution in which the Socialist, Liberal, the Green groups, and the European Left/Nordic Green Left party expressed “serious concerns” about “the exercise of democracy, the rule of law, the respect and protection of human and social rights, the system of checks and balances, equality and non-discrimination.” The resolution expressly calls on European Commission to guarantee that the Law on Churches respect the principle of the freedom of conscience and that the requirement of the two-third majority approval of the registration of churches is annulled. Parties in the European Parliament on the other end of the political spectrum called the measure irresponsible and premature reminding that there is an ongoing dialogue between the European Commission and the Hungarian government on these issues.

The latest development in the saga of the Law on Churches is that on February 27, 2012, Parliament amended the law adding another 18 churches to the previously approved 14. According to iafrica.com, however, after the passing of the Law on Churches 66 churches were excluded out of about 100 religious organizations applying for recognition. The Adventist Network reported that these newly recognized denominations include the Hungarian Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Methodist Church, the Pentecostal Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, and the Hungarian Islamic Council. John Graz, Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director for the Adventist world church said the following: “My hope is that the government of Hungary will continue to reassess the way it deals with religious minorities. Religious freedom is best served when a government makes no legal distinction between religions, and extends the same protections and privileges to all.”

Robert Almosd worked as an associate at Beach-Oswald Immigration Law Assoc. He is now working in Budapest, Hungary and is Of Counsel.

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