The Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional law, responded to a request from the government of Hungary for an advisory opinion, by issuing a report on Hungary’s 2011 Act On the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion and the Legal Status of Churches, Denominations and Religious Communities.
The main conclusions of the report are:
Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a democratic society. In this respect, it may only be restricted by strict criteria set out in international instruments.
States benefit from a large margin of appreciation with regard to the relationship between the church and the state and with regard to the choice of their policies and regulation in this field. The Venice Commission recognises that there is legitimate concern in Hungary to eliminate the abuse of religious organisations, which have operated for illicit and harmful purposes or for personal gain. One of the main justifications for this new Act is the need to prevent some religious organizations from abusing the possibility of receiving public funding. Although various types of solutions have been found throughout Europe, the European guarantees must not be undermined.
As a whole, the Act constitutes a liberal and generous framework for the freedom of
religion. However, although few in number, some important issues remain problematic and fall short of international standards.
The Act sets a range of requirements that are excessive and based on arbitrary criteria with regard to the recognition of a church. In particular, the requirement related to the national and international duration of a religious community and the recognition procedure, based on a political decision, should be reviewed. This recognition confers a number of privileges to churches concerned.
The Act has led to a deregistration process of hundreds of previously lawfully recognised churches, that can hardly be considered in line with international standards.
Finally, the Act induces, to some extent, an unequal and even discriminatory treatment of religious beliefs and communities, depending on whether they are recognised or not.
The Venice Commission was informed that – as a reaction to the draft opinion – the Government intends to introduce amendments, which is welcome. The Commission had no possibility to examine these proposals but it remains at the disposal of the Hungarian authorities for any further assistance.
For the access to the full text of the report, please click here.