There is nothing more fundamental than the freedom to live out your faith. This applies not only to individuals, but to churches as well. The freedom of churches to conduct their own affairs without interference from the government is at the center of religious freedom.
In fact, church autonomy has been a cornerstone of Western democracies since the Magna Carta laid its foundation over 800 years ago. But like the right to freely live out your faith, church autonomy has faced its fair share of challenges. One of its most prominent challenges came in 2009 in Hungary.
Minister for the Reformed Church of Hungary, Mr. Karoly Nagy, was made subject to church discipline because of statements he had made in a local newspaper. Mr. Nagy was removed from his post by an ecclesiastical court in 2005 following church disciplinary proceedings.
Angered by the church’s decision, Mr. Nagy appealed this decision to secular courts. It made its way through Hungarian state courts to the Hungarian Supreme Court. In the end, the Hungarian Supreme Court respected the right of the church to make its own decisions. It refused to meddle in the situation between Mr. Nagy and his church.
Upset that the Hungarian Supreme Court would not get involved, Mr. Nagy took his case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in 2009. It was left up to the ECtHR to protect church autonomy, and along with it the fundamental human right to freedom of association.
When Mr. Nagy’s case went to the ECtHR, ADF International filed an expert brief with the court. It highlighted the ECtHR’s previous case law, which safeguarded religious freedom as being one of the cornerstones of a democratic society and ‘one of the elements that make up the identity of believers and their conception of life’.
In September 2017, the ECtHR confirmed church autonomy as a basic right deserving protection in its 47 Member States.
The ECtHR ruled that the Hungarian state courts were perfectly entitled to not get involved in the case. This decision strengthened the right of churches to operate freely without state intervention, and protected the principle of church autonomy at the heart of religious freedom. The court’s decision upheld the institutional freedom of faith groups across Europe and preserved a fundamental aspect of democracy.
Mr. Nagy claimed that he was entitled to use the state courts to punish a church because he was unhappy with the outcome of the church disciplinary process. The ECtHR rejected this claim.
Rightly, the court affirmed that the government has no place interfering in the relationship between a church and its leaders.
With this, the court did not just uphold church autonomy. It also affirmed fundamental human rights outlined in Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, the UDHR states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
No one may be compelled to belong to an association. Mr. Nagy would have been perfectly within his rights to leave the Reformed Church of Hungary whenever he wanted. But when he came under church discipline, the church was also free to remove Mr. Nagy from his position. Rights, including human rights, are a two-way street.
A ruling against the Reformed Church of Hungary would not have just undermined its rights. It would have also threatened the rights to religious freedom and association of all of Europe.
The ECtHR’s ruling was a victory for universal human rights.
Will you join us?
On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ADF International reaffirms the fundamental understanding that human rights are based on the inherent dignity of each person. They’re based on the inherent dignity of ministers and parishioners, those who lead churches and those who attend church. They’re human, right?
Join us today in the promotion and protection of your fundamental freedoms.
Add your voice by signing The Geneva Statement on Human Rights at www.ImHumanRight.org