When Is a Church Not a Church?

by Paul Coleman

When is a church not a church? The answer – when the government says so. At least this is the case in several European countries, where a multi-tiered system is strictly operated and only the entities that reach the top tier are officially recognized as churches.

St. Elizabeth of HungaryWhile non-recognized churches can potentially still operate as associations, lacking official church recognition carries many consequences. For example, official churches can receive tax exemptions from real-estate tax; financial contributions to recognized churches can be tax deductible; it is easier for foreign ministers and missionaries to gain visas to work for a recognized church, and depending on the country, there may also be benefits in relation to education, military service and several other areas of life – none of which can be received by non-recognized churches.

Imagine the shock, then, for churches operating in Hungary in late 2011 when the government decided to introduce a new law that would de-register hundreds of churches from the officially recognized list.  In almost no time at all, the list had been shaved from over 300 churches to just 14.  After significant outcry, the list was begrudgingly extended to 32 churches – still 90% smaller than it had been just a few months before and still missing many religious communities that had been in existence for decades.

The Hungarian government explained that new law addressed the situation of bogus churches that were receiving benefits from the state – including such churches as the “Hungarian Witch Association” and “Cute Pilgrims from A to Z.”

Perhaps, then, the government had a legitimate ground for concern, but the new requirements for recognized churches are very demanding. For example, to be recognized as a church you must meet the government’s definition of religion; have existed for either 20 years domestically or 100 years internationally, and must have at least 1000 members. These requirements immediately ruled some smaller or newer congregations out of the running.

But remarkably, such requirements are not particularly unusual in some parts of Europe. Hungary’s neighbours, Slovakia and Austria, have equally, if not more imposing requirements – Slovakia requires 20,000 members and Austria requires a membership equalling at least 0,2% of the Austrian population (about 16,700 members). Several other European Union countries operate similar registration systems to Hungary, including Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, and the likes of Azerbaijan, Belarus and Turkey have systems that are far worse.

However, it was the process in which the re-ordering of religious organizations took place that was the main ground for concern in Hungary.  At least that was the view of the country’s Constitutional Court, who ruled on Tuesday 26 February 2013 that parts of the law were unconstitutional; having previously ruled that the way in which the law was brought about was unconstitutional.

According to the law, it is the Hungarian Parliament who ultimately decides which organizations are on the list and which are not, and to be recognized as a church requires a two thirds majority in a parliamentary vote. There is no review process against the vote, no written reasons, and crucially, no option to appeal the decision in the courts.  All of which means that a religious organization may tick all of the required boxes, yet still be voted against in parliament, with no option to appeal – a process that clearly lends itself to political influence. The Constitutional Court therefore decided that this process was unconstitutional. However, the practical consequences of the decision are still unclear.

It has been reported that the government may choose to amend the constitution so that the legislature has the explicit right to decide which churches are and are not officially recognized, effectively nullifying Tuesday’s court decision. Further problems remain for the churches that have now been de-registered, with many disappearing altogether or being forced to restructure themselves around the association model.  And all the while a case before the European Court of Human Rights continues, involving nine different religious communities that were all arbitrarily deregistered on January 1 2012.

The future of churches in Hungary therefore remains unknown, and while Tuesday’s court decision will be welcomed by those who believe there are better ways to protect religious freedom than through a strict registration system, it is unclear what will change in the immediate future. Certainly, for the time being it looks like many countries in Europe are still a long way from removing or reforming the multi-tier system, which means the government will continue to have the final say as to whether a church is really a church.


Paul Coleman is legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom in Vienna, Austria, where he specializes in international litigation with a focus on European law.

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