The watchdog organization Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) represented nine churches, deprived of their status, during the proceedings before the ECHR.
Despite its numerous modifications, the introduction of the Church Law of 2012 into Hungarian law has been one of the severest cases of disenfranchisement since the regime change. HCLU’s position on the matter is supported by last year's decision of the Constitutional Court, which established that the deprivation of status of legally operating churches by the new legislation is null and void, i.e., their legal status as churches remains unchanged. The government has so far failed to enforce the Constitutional Court’s judgment; what's more, one of the aims of the Fourth Amendment to the Fundamental Law was precisely to prevent the possibility of establishing non-compliance with the Hungarian standards of constitutional protection. The ECtHR has now confirmed that the Church Law was itself a violation of the law.
The judgment holds that, as long as the aim of the Church Law – filtering out abuses of state funds – is considered legitimate, depriving the applicants from their status constitutes a disproportionate restriction on their freedoms of religion and association. The ECtHR concluded that, in removing the applicants’ church status altogether rather than applying less stringent measures, in establishing a politically tainted re-registration procedure, whose justification is open to doubt as such, and finally, in treating the applicants differently from the incorporated churches not only in the possibilities of cooperation but also in securing benefits for the purposes of faith-related activities, the Hungarian authorities neglected their duty of neutrality. The ECtHR claimed there was no pressing social need in a democratic society to justify these legislative steps.
The Fundamental Law, in its current form, includes rules contradicting the European Convention on Human Rights, as sections of the Church Law that have now been ruled unlawful were introduced into the Fundamental Law by the previous Parliament. Thus the present Parliament had better implement thorough modifications.