ECHR upholds freedom of churches to select, appoint, and replace their personnel in accordance with church teaching and without state interference
What’s at Stake:
Principle of church autonomy
Should religious institutions have the freedom to decide who teaches religious education in church schools? The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has consistently protected this principle of church autonomy. But it is being tested again in an ongoing Croatian case.
Peter Travaš taught religion at a Catholic school in Croatia. He divorced his wife and in 2006 remarried in a civil ceremony. The church then revoked the special permission required from the local Catholic bishop to give religious instruction, for the simple reason that his personal life no longer adhered to the church’s doctrine of marriage.
Although he was no longer allowed to teach religion, the school tried to find another post for him. In the end, there was no alternative role available at that time so he was removed from his position at the school.
Travaš challenged his dismissal in the Croatian Courts, which culminated in a failed appeal at the Constitutional Court. The Croatian Courts held that the school was entitled to remove Travaš from his post following the withdrawal of his certification to teach religion. Undeterred, Travaš brought his case before the ECHR in 2013. ADF International was accepted as a third party and filed a brief, arguing that the freedom of the church to decide its own doctrine on marriage should be protected. It argued further that if a person does not comply with the church’s teaching in this regard, the church should not be forced to allow that person to teach religious classes in schools.
In 2016 the court handed down its judgment. It dismissed the appeal and held that churches have the freedom to select, appoint, and replace their personnel in accordance with church teaching and without undue state interference. The Court’s decision corresponded with ADF International’s arguments that the autonomy of churches is protected under the Convention.
Following this judgment, Travaš launched an appeal to refer the case to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR. In January 2017 the Grand Chamber rejected Travaš’ appeal and upheld the Court’s decision on the freedom of religious communities to administer their own affairs free from government interference.
Our Role in the Case
ADF International filed a brief with the ECHR arguing for the protection of the freedom of the church to decide its own doctrine on marriage.