The European Court of Human Rights has decided that civil courts should not adjudicate disputes between pastors and churches.
The ruling, in a case in Hungary, aligns with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed internal conflicts to be resolved by church law.
The case in Hungary was brought by Karoly Nagy, who went to civil court to demand payment for his services during a period beginning in 2005 when his church suspended him in a disciplinary proceeding.
The Hungarian Supreme Court had refused to accept jurisdiction because ecclesiastical law was applicable in the case, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom International.
When Nagy took the case to the ECHR, it initially ruled against him and upheld church autonomy. The court’s highest chamber now has upheld that decision.
The ruling, which applies to all 47 of the Council of Europe’s member states, affirms the right of churches to have ecclesiastical courts and discipline ministers.
“The government has no place interfering in the relationship between a church and its leaders,” said ADF International Deputy Director Paul Coleman. “ADF International intervened in this case to highlight that time-honored principle. International law, and especially the European Convention on Human Rights, protects this fundamental freedom, and the Grand Chamber has now affirmed this.
Coleman explained that the Grand Chamber’s judgment dismissed Nagy’s claim that he was entitled to use the state courts against a church when he was unhappy with the decisions of the internal ecclesiastical courts.”
“This decision is welcome because it reinforces the rights and freedoms of religious believers in all 47 member states of the Council of Europe to manage their own affairs without unwarranted external interference,” he said.
The final order said the lower courts “rightly stated … that the agreement serving as the basis of the applicant’s claim was not an agency contract under civil law or concluded by and between the parties enjoying personal autonomy in the marketing of [goods and services].”
“The plaintiff was appointed as a pastor in an ecclesiastical procedure, and the obligations of the respondent were defined in an appointment letter issued by the assembly of presbyters. The parties established between themselves a pastoral service relationship, governed by ecclesiastical law.”
The ruling said that under section 15 (1) of Act N. IV of 1990 on Freedom of Conscience and Religion and on Churches, “the church is separate from the state,” and under sub-section (2), “no state coercion can be used to enforce the internal laws and regulations of churches.”
The ruling said the applicant could “make a claim” under the applicable Reformed Church laws, but the fact that “the agreement entered into under ecclesiastical law resembles a contractual agreement under the Civil Code does not entail state jurisdiction or the enforceability of the claim in a judicial procedure within the meaning of Article 7 of the Civil Code.”
“The first-instance court was right to point out that as the impugned agreement lacked a civil-law legal basis, the court could not examine the applicant’s secondary claim (compensation for breach of contract).”
The ruling explained that he had been removed as a pastor of the Reformed (Calvinist) Church of Hungary for stating “in a local newspaper that state subsidies had been paid unlawfully to a Calvinist boarding school.”
ADF submitted a brief in the case stating the ECHR “has consistently recognized the need for churches and religious organizations to operate freely without state intervention.”
“This essential freedom, enshrined in Article 9 (freedom of religion) and 11 (freedom of association) of the European Convention on Human Rights (‘the Convention’) is necessary for the proper functioning of religious institutions and even democracy itself,” ADF said.
“In order to preserve the autonomy of churches and the proper functioning of democracy, Council of Europe Member States and this court should defer to churches in matters of ecclesiastical disputes,” the brief said.
It was in 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Lutheran school teacher was a “minister” who could not sue the church that fired her.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the unanimous Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC decision that the First Amendment provides, in part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
“We have said that these two clauses ‘often exert conflicting pressures,’ and that there can be ‘internal tension … between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.’ Not so here. Both Religion Clauses bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers.”
Roberts said that requiring a church “to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision.”
“Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.”