Guest Post: Recent Case-Law of the European Court of Human Rights and the U.S. Supreme Court on Church Autonomy

By Jaco van den Brink. J. van den Brink (LLM) is attending a Master’s in Political Philosophy at Leiden University and meanwhile preparing a PhD research on religious freedom.

A couple of quite interesting judgments were issued by the ECtHR, the last two years, concerning the internal autonomy of churches. The most recent judgment was in the case Fernandez-Martinez vs. Spain (15th May 2012). The applicant was a Catholic priest, who was married and was therefore discharged by the Church authorities of the teaching activities he performed before. The question was at stake: is it primarily the state’s task to protect the employee’s position and free private-life choices, or to refrain from interfering in the appointment policies of the Church? The Court didn’t find a violation. According to Stijn Smet on http://strasbourgobservers.com/2012/05/24/fernandez-martinez-v-spain-towards-a-ministerial-exception-in-europe/ , the Court sided with the Spanish Constitutional Court in deciding that the state was not allowed to engage in this religiously inspired internal policy of the Church, without really engaging in a balancing of interests by testing the reasonability of the Church’s decision. The Court itself however, seems to suggest that it intends to perform such a test.In January of this year, the Court seemed to take quite another approach in Sindicatul "Pãstorul cel Bun" v. Romania. In this case the Court ruled that the Romanian Orthodox Church could not refuse legal acknowledgment to a kind of labor union of a certain group of clerics and lay members. The Church’s freedom of religion and association apparently did not preclude its duty to grant full associational freedom within its sphere, to all its members.

The three ‘German cases’ (September 2010, Schüth vs. Germany and Obst vs. Germany; and February 2011 Siebenhaar vs. Germany), were judged in a way that seems to be somewhere in between the two mentioned above. These cases were quite similar to Fernandez-Martinez vs. Spain, but here the Court undoubtedly engaged in a balancing of interests and judged (albeit marginally) the reasonability of the decision by the churches to end the employment contract.

These cases are often compared with the US-Supreme Court judgment in the case Hosanna-Tabor, in which case a religious teacher was dismissed by a Lutheran church. The Supreme Court -unanimously -did nothing to evaluate this church’s decision, but merely elaborated on the ‘ministerial exception’, according to the Court implicit in the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment. This principle contains that religious institutions are more or less free to make their own choices in the appointment of ‘ministers’, regardless of the employment regulation. The state therefore doesn’t have a say in such church’s internal affairs, as the Supreme Court concludes. It seems to me that this judgment goes even further in recognizing church autonomy than the ECtHR in Fernandez-Martinez vs. Spain.

To conclude, I’ll put some reasons why I’m inclined to think that the Hosanna-Tabor-type of reasoning is the most sound:

  • Much can be said in favour of the principle that the legitimacy-area of the state stops where the area of church authority begins. Churches and states both fulfil important roles in people’s lives, but their roles are very different and irreducable to each other. (By the way, such a principle would also apply to religious institutions in general, but maybe also to other civil society institutions, and perhaps even to families).

  • If the state’s competences are to be restricted this way, then indeed there is even no room for a balancing of interests in a case like Hosanna-Tabor or Fernandez-Martinez. As long as the church doesn’t interfere in the state’s prerogatives of protecting citizens against violence or other clear cases of exploitation and abuse, the church’s internal business are to be left up to the church’s proper authorities. A court which evaluates a church’s appointment decision, holds implicitly that the state has full competence to direct everything in society and is free to decide how much autonomy it is willing to grant to churches.

  • This becomes still more important when we take the religious character of churches into account, since it is not up to the state to evaluate the content of religious ethics.

  • We cannot strive towards a protection of individual autonomy, regardless what kind of institution is involved, since that would be to deny the special, indispensable role that such institutions (as collective institutions) play in human life and in society. This role is not reducable to individual choice only, and neither to the goods which the state provides.