What’s at Stake
The freedom of churches to regulate their own affairs without state interference
The principle of church autonomy has been a cornerstone of Western democracies since the Magna Carta first laid down the principle over 800 years ago. The freedom of churches to conduct their own affairs without interference from the government or other state bodies is at the centre of the right to freedom of religion. When this important principle was challenged in Hungary, it was left up to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to protect it.
In 2009 a Hungarian church minister, Mr Karoly Nagy, filed an application with the ECHR. He complained that the state courts had refused to get involved in a matter of internal church discipline. Four years earlier an ecclesiastical court removed Mr Nagy from his pastoral post following church disciplinary proceedings. Acting in line with the principle of church autonomy, the Hungarian Supreme Court refused to accept jurisdiction, clearly stating that ‘the parties established between themselves a pastoral service relationship, regulated by ecclesiastical law.’
When Mr Nagy’s case went to the ECHR, ADF International filed an expert brief with the court. It highlighted the ECHR’s previous case law, which safeguarded religious freedom as being one of the cornerstones of a democratic society and ‘one of the elements that make up the identity of believers and their conception of life’.
The ECHR ruled that the Hungarian state courts were perfectly entitled to refuse adjudication of the case. This decision therefore strengthened the right of churches to operate freely without state intervention, and protected the principle of church autonomy at the heart of religious freedom. The court’s decision upheld the institutional freedom of faith groups across Europe and preserved a fundamental aspect of democracy.
In May 2016 the case went to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR. ADF International submitted a third party intervention the following month, reaffirming the Church’s right to have oversight in its internal disputes. The Grand Chamber heard oral arguments in October 2016 and the judgment is pending.
ADF International Senior Counsel Paul Coleman commented: ‘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.’
On 14 September 2017, the European Court of Human Rights confirmed church autonomy as a basic right deserving protection in its 47 Member States. In the case Nagy v. Hungary, the Grand Chamber of the Court upheld the right of churches to ‘ecclesiastical courts and the discipline of ministers’.
Our Role in the Case
ADF International filed an expert brief in the case of Nagy v. Hungary, arguing that according to international law, churches and religious organizations are entitled to manage their internal affairs without interference by the government or other state bodies.