Date: February 26, 2013
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By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Budapest
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)-- Hungary's top court on Tuesday, February 26, overturned controversial religious legislation that dramatically reduced the number of recognized churches, but the government threatened to challenge the ruling with constitutional amendments.
Under the recently adopted 'Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions and
Religious Communities' only 32 of over 300 faith groups in Hungary received formal recognition by Parliament to operate as churches.
However the Constitutional Court said the law failed to "stipulate that detailed reasons" must be provided when a request for church status is refused.
It also complained that "no legal remedies" were provided to those being refused church status and said granting church status by parliamentary vote "could result in political decisions".
Hungary's center-right government argued that the 'church law', as it also known, aims to prevent abuse of Hungary's tax regulations and related legislation.
The court ordered Parliament, however, to establish new rules "to filter out groups" that claim to be churches but do not carry out religious activities.
Formal recognition gives churches tax-free status, qualifies them for government support and allows them to collect donations during services and do pastoral work in jails and hospitals of this heavily Catholic nation of some 10 million people.
Hungary's Ombudsman Máté Szabó, an elected official for civil rights, had asked the Constitutional Court to rule on the law amid concerns the legislation violated religious freedom and the constitutional separation of church and state.
Jura Nanuk, the founder and president of the Central-European Religious Freedom Institute in Budapest welcomed Szabó's legal challenge.
"There are things in this law that are contrary to many international recommendations on such laws. I believe it is a very good thing what the ombudsman did, I appreciate what he did," Nanuk told BosNewsLife.
Critics claimed the European Union's most restrictive church bill only served the interests and ideology of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
The EU and the United States have also questioned the legislation and Orbán's perceived crackdown on previously independent institutions.
Some evangelical Christians and former democracy activists compared the legislation to Hungary's Communist-era when religion was discouraged.
Szabó said earlier that the concerns expressed by faith groups prompted him to launch the legal challenge. "...Freedom of religion makes it indispensable that the decision on the recognition of the church, on rendering the religious status meets all guarantees protecting fundamental rights," he stressed.
While Tuesday's outcome came as a moral victory for churches, including several evangelical congregations, trial observers cautioned that Prime Minister Orbán wanted to use his Fidesz party's super-majority in parliament to change the constitution it passed in 2011.
Among the proposed changes included in the constitution — or Basic Law as it is known in Hungary — would be Parliament's right to decide which churches are officially recognized. That would make it impossible to challenge the legislation, and effectively bypass the ruling of the Constitutional Court.
Recent policies have already impacted churches. “Many of the churches which lost their status last year have disappeared or have turned themselves into associations,” said lawyer Szabolcs Hegyi of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union in published remarks.
"The government’s good will and assistance would also be needed to restore the churches’ rights and that is far from being the case."
Szabó has made clear he hopes Hungary's legislature will uphold religious rights for all churches. "On the basis of the principle of separation of power the Parliament cannot exercise tasks, during which it makes political decisions affecting fundamental civil rights, without having appropriate constitutional guarantees," he said in an earlier statement obtained by BosNewsLife.
News of Tuesday's ruling came a day before EU President Herman Van Rompuy was due in Budapest to meet Orbán in an attempt to ease tensions.