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European Court Rules in Favor of Church Autonomy

On December 1, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued an important decision that reaffirms the right of churches and other religious institutions to operate without undue government interference across Europe.

The case, Nagy v. Hungary, began when internal church disciplinary proceedings were brought against a Hungarian Calvinist Minister for publicly claiming state subsidies had been unlawfully paid to a Calvinist boarding school. The ecclesiastical court conducting the internal proceedings voted to remove the Minister. The Minister appealed but the decision to remove him was upheld by a second ecclesiastical court.

After the two ecclesiastical decisions, the Minister filed a compensation claim against his former church in the secular Hungarian court system. The secular court refused to hear the matter, finding it had no jurisdiction to adjudicate the Minister’s claims because they were regulated by ecclesiastical rules. Eventually, the matter worked its way up to the Hungarian Supreme Court, which affirmed the lower court’s decision not to hear the matter since it was based on and regulated entirely by ecclesiastical law.

Finally, the Minister filed a complaint with the ECHR, alleging he was denied access to the court system based on the fact he was a Minister. The ECHR disagreed, instead ruling the Hungarian courts were within their authority to refuse to adjudicate the Minister’s case. Because the dispute related to a pastoral service relationship that was governed by ecclesiastical law, the Hungarian courts were well within their rights to refuse to accept jurisdiction over the dispute.

This decision also reinforces the principle of church autonomy and entitles European religious entities to manage their affairs internally in accordance with their own ecclesiastical law, free from the oversight and intervention of the secular court system. More information regarding the ECHR decision and its impact on international church autonomy can be found here from Alliance Defending Freedom.



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