Rethinking Religion in Hungary

by Travis LaCouter, On February 27, 2013

Hungary’s Parliament must rethink its approach to established religion after the Constitutional Court struck down several parts of the country’s religion law on Tuesday.

The Court ruled that Parliament’s power to decide who qualifies for the status of recognized church hurts the principle of separation of powers. It further ruled that having no possibility of an appeal against the Parliament’s decision is unconstitutional, as is the fact that Parliament is not required to give a reason for its decisions. Official churches in Hungary enjoy tax-exempt status, qualify to receive public funding, and are authorized to collect donations. Though the Court recognized that the government must take reasonable steps to ensure that only religious organizations are registered as churches, it nevertheless ruled the existing law unconstitutional and retroactively restored the official church status of hundreds of religious entities that had previously lost it.

In late December 2011, Hungary’s government cut the number of state-recognized churches from around 370 to just 14. That group included traditional Western faiths like Christianity and Judaism (although excluding some Christian denominations), but excluded Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. In March of 2012, Parliament expanded the church list to include 18 new churches, including several Buddhist and two Islamic organizations. Tuesday’s ruling theoretically restores the official status of hundreds of former churches, but Szabolcs Hegyi of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union recently told the press that “Many of the churches which lost their status last year have disappeared or have turned themselves into associations.” All those former churches that wish to take advantage of the new ruling will not necessarily be able to do so because they either merged with others or simply disbanded.

The Fidesz-led governing coalition, for its part, seems to be setting up another battle with the Court. In the proposed Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which currently sits in front of Parliament, the party would amend the Basic Law to re-grant robust discretionary powers to the legislature when deciding church registration, effectively constitutionalizing the very power that the Court has just declared unconstitutional. The current confrontation comes in the midst of an ongoing tug-of-war between the nation’s highest court and the country’s governing party, a contest that is helping to define the contours of constitutional limitations and judicial review in Hungary.

The role of religion in public life is the source of near-constant debate in many healthy democracies, and in some ways this current controversy signals a useful time for thinking anew about the relationship between church and state in Hungary. In some sense, however, the Court’s ruling is little more than a procedural clarification of a generally accepted policy of state sponsorship of religion. Western observers who are now celebrating the Court’s decision might instead hope for an honest and fruitful discussion about the merits and problems of state sponsorship of religion in the first place.

Travis LaCouter is the Managing Editor of Paprika Politik.

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