European church leaders welcome court ruling on religious rights

Catholic News Service

OXFORD, England (CNS) — Catholic Church representatives have welcomed a European Court judgment reaffirming the autonomy of religious communities, but warned that pressure could continue to restrict religious rights.

“Although this is a technical ruling, it provides a welcome endorsement of religious freedom at a time when we’re used to seeing more negative developments,” said Father Patrick Daly, general secretary of the Commission of Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, or COMECE, based in Brussels.

“In the present climate, it’s not a total surprise such cases are being brought against the Catholic Church. The church must respond by being very sure of its own legal position and treating the challenges in a fair and open-minded way.”

On June 12, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, rejected claims of discrimination by Fernandez Martinez, a laicized priest from Spain, whose contract to teach Catholicism in a state high school was discontinued by his bishop when Martinez opposed church teaching on priestly celibacy and other issues.

The teacher, now a married father of five, claimed his personal rights had been violated and appealed to the court when Spain’s constitutional court rejected his lawsuit. He cited Article 8 of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights, which enshrines respect for private and family life.

In its June 12 judgment, passed 9-8, the court backed the bishop’s right to end the contract, adding that Martinez “was voluntarily part of the circle of individuals who were bound, for reasons of credibility, by a duty of loyalty toward the Catholic Church.”

Father Daly told Catholic News Service Europe’s churches should also recognize the judgment was passed by a narrow majority, suggesting “other schools of opinion” were less sympathetic to religious rights.

Gudrun Kugler, director of the Vienna-based Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians, which works closely with Europe’s Catholic Church, said, “Political forces in Europe are arguing that Catholic schools, hospitals and other institutions must provide everything that’s legally permitted, and this is clearly a problem on issues such as abortion.”

“When freedom of conscience is at stake, this ruling will help lift current threats to the autonomy of churches,” she said. “But it also shows there’s a worrying division in society over sensitive human rights issues, which some people seem to be using as tools in political campaigns.”

Gregor Puppinck, the French lawyer representing the Spanish bishops’ conference, said in a June 13 statement the ruling set important limits on the “power of civil authorities” to arbitrate in conflicts within churches or question “the legitimacy of religious beliefs or their modes of expression.”

He added that members of a religious community were free to leave if they disagreed with its teachings and said the judgment would also restrict the state’s capacity “to force a religious community to accept or exclude an individual, or to entrust the individual with any religious responsibility.”

The June 12 judgment follows the European Court’s January 2012 rejection of a legal petition by Romanian Orthodox priests to be allowed to form a union to defend their interests against church superiors.