- 8 Mar 2012 8:04 AM
Parliament passed the new church legislation, the cardinal bill concerning the freedom of conscience and religion and the status of churches, religious denominations and religious communities, on 30 December 2011. The passage of the law was preceded by a series of lengthy consultations with churches.
Fulfilment of international commitments
The new church legislation, in harmony with the Fundamental Law, conforms to Hungary’s international commitments and is fully in conformity with the covenants set forth in Articles 2, 18 and 26 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in Articles 2, 18 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in Articles 9 and 14 of the Covenant concerning the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, in Article 1 of Optional Protocol 12 to the Covenant and in Article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
The new church law is also in harmony with Article 17(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union which delegates the statutory regulation of religious and church affairs to national competence.
Freedom of religion enhanced
According to Hungary’s Fundamental Law, everyone has the right to the freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This extends to the free determination or changing of religious beliefs or other convictions and the freedom for everyone to profess or not to profess, exercise or teach their religion or other convictions by way of religious acts and ceremonies or in any other way, whether individually or collectively with others, both publicly and privately.
In Hungary, the State and churches operate in separation; churches are independent and the State cooperates with them in the interest of the attainment of communal objectives. The detailed rules governing churches are set forth in a cardinal law. The Fundamental Law lays down that everyone has the right to freely establish organisations or to join organisations, and proclaims the freedom of opinion. At the same time, as a new element, both the Fundamental Law and the new church legislation stipulate that the State cooperates with churches in the interest of the attainment of communal objectives.
The new church law that entered into force on 1 January 2012 guarantees the freedom of conscience and religion on both an individual and communal level. It looks upon churches as cohesive social factors of great significance that convey genuine values and create communities. Based on the Fundamental Law, the new legislation continues to provide for the due separation of the State and churches and provides, in this context, full autonomy for churches, while it prescribes cooperation for the attainment of communal goals. Therefore, the free exercise of religion is fully guaranteed, as it was in the past, not only individually but also on a communal level.
By virtue of the passage of the law, a multi-tier religious communal system will come into being, in harmony with the relevant European trends and legal system. In addition to the status of church, the status of association will also come into being, and the law provides that associations operating institutions, too, may enter into agreements with the State.
The new church law provides a high degree of autonomy and freedom of operation for recognised churches, also by European standards, and offers them access to significant state aid both for the pursuance of religious activities and the fulfilment of public duties. At the same time, it guarantees the exercise of the freedom of conscience and religion, both individually and communally, also outside the framework of church organisations and makes available state funding for the operation of associations as well.
Elimination of business churches
The purpose of the new legislation was to restore the prestige and rank of the operation of churches. The unsustainable nature of the regulations previously in force became increasingly obvious in the last twenty years; the extremely generous conditions of the establishment of churches provided ample scope for abusing a fundamental right, permitted fraudulent organisations to illegally draw on the funding made available to churches and allowed the registration as churches of organisations which did not actually engage in religious activities. This resulted in the untenable situation that there were more than 300 registered „churches” in Hungary, dozens of which quite obviously did not pursue any kind of religious activities but were simply set up to profit from the benefits offered by the State.
Therefore, the conditions of eligibility for recognition as a church under the new regulation aim to ensure that only organisations clearly and genuinely engaged in religious activities may seek recognition as churches.
The new law is able to remedy the shortcomings that characterised the former legislation. It lays down, for instance, clear and detailed rules with respect to application for registration and the process of registration.
What are the conditions of recognition as a church?
The new church legislation makes no distinction between churches and does not identify different statutory categories. The list constituting a schedule to the new church law is open. Consequently, any religious community currently operating in Hungary may seek recognition as a church.
As the new church law delegated the power of the recognition of churches to the competence of Parliament, the duties of registration were referred to the hands of the minister responsible for the coordination of liaison with churches.
Parliament may decide on the registration as churches of any further religious communities not specifically identified in the new church legislation, in the form of an amendment, by duly supplementing the list constituting a schedule to the new Church Act. With regard to the cardinal nature of the schedule to the new church law, this will be subject to the vote of the two-third majority of the attending members of Parliament.
An application for registration may be submitted if an association is primarily engaged in religious activities, has a creed and rite summing up the essentials of its teachings and has operated internationally for at least one hundred years or has operated in Hungary as an association under organised auspices for minimum twenty years, a period which also includes the term of operation as a church prior to the entry into force of the new church legislation.
It is a further important condition that applicants must have approved statutes, a deed of foundation or internal church rules and duly elected officers and representative bodies, and their representatives are required to declare that the activities of their respective organisations are not contrary to the Fundamental Law or any other legal rule and do not infringe the rights and freedom of others. The recognition of an organisation must be refused if the competent state agency established the existence of national security risks in the course of the operation of the organisation or if its activities violate the right to physical, mental and spiritual health, the protection of life or human dignity.
Who decides on recognition as a church?
Parliament may decide on the registration of religious communities as churches in the form of an amendment to the law. The Government has no say in which organisations are recognised as churches. The Government (the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice) only performs administrative, executive tasks; it registers churches based on Parliament’s decision.
It is the duty of the parliamentary committee concerned with religious affairs to examine whether the criteria determined in the new church legislation are fulfilled. As part of this duty, the chair of the committee consults the President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences with respect to the conditions relating to the nature of the given religious activities and the actual term of operation, and may, if all criteria are found to be met, invite the organisation to verify the same.
Based on a popular initiative, the committee must present a draft amendment to Parliament. If the conditions of recognition do not exist, the committee must specifically state so in the reasoning of its draft proposal, however, the draft amendment must, also in this case, be submitted to Parliament and the plenary meeting of Parliament decides on the proposed bill.
If Parliament does not support the recognition as a church of an association identified in the proposed bill, it publishes its decision thereon in the form of a parliamentary resolution.
By virtue of the above regulation, the State effectively provides a constitutional status for recognised churches.
How can an organisation seek recognition as a church?
The legal representative of an organisation engaged in religious activities as its fundamental purpose may seek recognition as a church on the basis of the rules relating to popular initiatives, with the signatures of minimum one thousand electors. We must stress in this context that the organisation is not required to verify church membership but is merely required to gather signatures from those supporting its cause, for the purposes of which it has two months at its disposal.
The signatures are certified by the National Electoral Committee which has competence in this matter. If the initiative is submitted belatedly or the National Electoral Committee establishes as a result of the verification of the signatures that the number of valid signatures does not reach the applicable limit, the Speaker of the House announces at the next session of Parliament following the receipt of notification from the National Electoral Committee that the initiative did not conform to the statutory requirements. An appeal may be submitted against the decision of the National Electoral Committee to the Curia.
The initiative may be submitted to the Chair of the National Electoral Committee once, within two months of the certification of the signature sheets. If the applicable number of valid signatures is available, the Chair of the National Electoral Committee notifies Parliament of this, and Parliament must place the initiative on its agenda and must adopt a decision within three months of notification.
Churches recognised by Parliament
Parliament decided on the recognition of 14 churches in the first round at the end of December 2011. The churches recommended for recognition were identified partly on the basis of their historical past and partly with a view to their outstanding social significance. The 14 churches recognised already in the first round fully reflected the religious affiliation of Hungarian society. The fourteen churches in question cover 99% of those with religious beliefs.
1. Hungarian Catholic Church
2. Reformed Church in Hungary
3. The Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Hungary
4. Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities
5. Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation
6. Autonomous Orthodox Community of Hungary (Stausquo ante)
7. Buda Diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church
8. Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople – the Orthodox Exarchate in Hungary
9. Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Hungary
10. Romanian Orthodox Diocese in Hungary
11. Hungarian Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate)
12. Hungarian Diocese of the Unitarian Church in Hungary
13. Baptist Union of Hungary
14. Faith Church
In addition to the churches approved by Parliament in the first round, further organisations submitted applications for recognition, and Parliament therefore decided on the recognition of another 18 churches on 27 February 2012.
15. United Methodist Church in Hungary
16. Evangelical Pentecostal Church in Hungary
17. St. Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church
18. Transylvanian Congregation
19. Seventh-day Adventist Church
20. Coptic Orthodox Church of Hungary
21. Apostolic Christian Church of Nazarene
22. Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness
23. Free Church of the Salvation Army of Hungary
24. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
25. Hungarian Church of Jehova’s Witnesses
Hungarian Islam Council:
26. Church of Muslims of Hungary
27. Hungarian Islamic Community
Buddhist religious communities
28. Dharma Gate Buddhist Church
29. Buddhist Mission, Buddhist Church Arya Maitreya Mandala of Hungary
30. Hungarian Karma Kagyu Buddhist Community
31. Chinese Chan Buddhist Church of Hungary
32. Diamond Way Buddhist Community
Operation of unregistered churches
In contrast to previous practice, the registration of churches recognised by Parliament and the keeping of the relevant register fall within the duties of the Minister. This practical arrangement ensures the keeping of standard, up-to-date and transparent records, which the previous decentralised court registration practice was unable to achieve (churches were often recorded in collective registers also featuring civil organisations).
Churches which submitted applications for recognition as churches by the repeal of Act C of 2011 will retain their status as churches until 29 February 2012. Parliament must decide on their recognition or the refusal of their applications by this date. In this case, no popular initiative is required; the committee only investigates the existence of the statutory conditions necessary for recognition. The Minister will publish a communiqué on the churches concerned on the website of the Ministry under his supervision.
All organisations previously registered as churches which will continue to operate as associations as of 1 January 2012 may submit to the tribunal the data necessary for registration under the Act on Civil Organisations as part of a change registration procedure until 29 February 2012 in accordance with the rules governing associations, and may continue their operation as associations engaged in religious activities as their fundamental purpose.
These organisations will function as the general legal successors of the former churches, or if they satisfy the criteria of recognition as churches, they may seek their repeated recognition as churches under the rules relating to popular initiatives.
If an organisation fails to make a declaration with respect to its continued operation or issues a negative declaration or fails to meet the relevant conditions by 30 June, it is transferred under forced dissolution (forced deletion). In the case of organisations, however, which submitted applications for recognition as churches by the repeal of Act C of 2011 as described above and qualify as churches until 29 February 2012, these deadlines are extended by two months.
Based on the former legislation, churches were registered in a decentralised manner, at county or metropolitan level. In the majority of cases, there were mixed registers for churches and social organisations, and there was no separate church register. As, in addition to the 14 churches already recognised by law, another 85 religious communities sought their recognition as churches by 20 December 2011 and 187 churches applied for 1% donations from the personal income tax revenue in the year before, it may be presumed that over a hundred of the former registered churches did not actually and effectively maintain operations of any kind.
If an organisation is registered as a church, the Minister notifies the court of this fact in the manner determined by law, and the organisation is thereafter deleted from the court records. The status of the organisation as an association will cease and the organisation will continue to operate as a church entity.
The new church legislation also enables smaller churches to acquire the status of church; if they are nonetheless unable to meet the relevant criteria, 10 individuals may establish religious associations as legal entities against the fulfilment of minimal conditions, as part of which they may exercise their religion unhindered also on a communal level. Additionally, the legal rules permit just 3 individuals to establish a civil society, without a financial contribution or organisational framework, for the advancement of their common goals of a non-financial nature and the coordination of their communal activities.
The rights, freedom of conscience and religion and the religious activities of associations engaged in religious activities as their fundamental purpose are governed by all the provisions which are not reserved by the new church law exclusively for recognised churches, in particular,
• the State may not control and supervise their operation;
• the State may not investigate or review their decisions of a religious nature and may not enforce their implementation;
• the special rules relating to the management of personal data in the course of religious activities also apply to associations;
• church services and, with regard to the smooth and undisturbed operation of church governance, churches, cemeteries and other holy venues enjoy increased protection under infringement and criminal law;
• they may use the designation „church”;
• they may gather donations and may receive 1% donations from the personal income tax revenue;
• they may only disclose their membership records based on the specific permission of their members;
• they may operate institutions of higher education as well as institutions of public education and social institutions, and the State provides funding for the operation of these;
• they may retain their arable land estates.
The new church legislation guarantees full legal succession for former churches now converting into civil organisations, while the other legal rules serving to supplement the underlying law provide for the protection of property and acquired rights, including the possibility of the continued retention of title to any arable land they may own at present, which legal entities are not otherwise permitted to acquire in Hungary and which churches, too, may only obtain by way of maintenance, annuity or donation agreements."