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ECHR upholds church autonomy

ECHR reaffirms the right of religious institutions to operate without state interference


STRASBOURG, FRANCE – The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) today strengthened the right of churches to operate freely without state intervention. ADF International filed an expert brief in the case of Nagy v. Hungary, arguing that according to international law churches and religious organisations are entitled to manage their internal affairs without interference by the government or other state bodies. With its ruling, the court strengthened the principle of church autonomy at the centre of the right to freedom of religion.

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

“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,” said Paul Coleman, Senior Legal Counsel with ADF International. In the intervention, ADF International highlighted the court’s previous case-law, which safeguarded the rights guaranteed by freedom of religion 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.”

In 2009 Hungarian church minister, Mr. Karoly Nagy, filed an application with the ECHR, complaining that the state courts refused to weigh in on a matter of internal church discipline.

The dispute dates back to 2005, when an ecclesiastical court removed Mr. Nagy from his pastoral post following church disciplinary proceedings that had been brought against him. A second ecclesiastical court upheld this decision and dismissed Mr Nagy’s appeal. He then sought legal redress through the state court system. The case went to the Hungarian Supreme Court, which refused to accept jurisdiction on the basis that, “the parties established between themselves a pastoral service relationship, regulated by ecclesiastical law.”

The ECHR ruled that the Hungarian state courts were perfectly entitled to refuse adjudication of the case, therefore strengthening the right of churches to manage their internal affairs free from state intervention. Coleman added: “In the year that we celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, which first laid down the principle of church autonomy, we welcome this ECHR decision that protects the institutional freedom of faith groups across Europe.”

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Faith-based legal advocacy organization that protects fundamental freedoms and promotes the inherent dignity of all people.