New Church Law in Hungary: “A Necessary Change”

New Church Law in Hungary: “A Necessary Change”

[The following is a translation of a story that recently appeared on the Reformed Church in Hungay’s website.]

Comments on the “Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions and Religious Community” passed by the Hungarian Parliament in a 254-43 vote on July 14 2011.

The new Act on Church, which was adopted on 14 July 2011, was widely criticized in Hungary and abroad as well mainly because of the facr that it grants formal recognition to only 14 of 352 religious organizations in Hungary. Due to the lack of objective assessment, we feel it necessary to reveal the main reasons of the creation of such law and the sensitive spots about the adoption.

The original Church Law, adopted right after the political changes in 1989, intended to compensate for the restriction of religious freedom by providing the as much liberty as possible. However, the past twenty years have proven that the act, which was among the most liberal church acts in the world, had a lot of weak points. Over the last years many communities took advantage of the easily performable requirements and set up churches without religious belief, only for the benefits warranted by law.

These abuses caused problems for the budget and drew the lawmakers’ attention to the unsolved question. The majority of the churches (like the Reformed Church in Hungary) welcomed and supported the intention of change, particularly the elimination of communities without real spiritual life and function.

The procedure of the establishment and adoption of the new Church Act however raised questions. While experts of the four so-called historical churches had the opportunity to examine the preliminary plans, the society only discovered about it from the news. Previously there were 352 registered churches, so the list of the fourteen legally recorded and formally recognized churches provoked conflicts. The act managed to eliminate “business churches” but there are some congregations who were unfairly deprived of their ecclesiastical status.

One week after the adoption, the Reformed Church and the Lutheran Church in Hungary addressed a letter to the Minister of Justice and Administration, in which they asked the record of 5 more denominations which are members of the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Hungary (the Methodist Church, the Pentecostal Church, the Salvation Army, the Hungarian Free Christian Community and the Oldchristian Apostolic Church). 

Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that the act, which makes a distinction between communities according to the number of members or the effect on the society, is in harmony with the mainline European practice. Furthermore, the announced list is yet provisional, so other denominations can qualify later. The members of the non-recorded churches are free to practice their faith and there is no restriction in freedom of religions. The main difference is about state support and financial privileges. In this regard, the government promised to negotiate over the financing of the public service provided by institutions and initiatives of denominations which weren’t on the list until the end of 2011.

To sum up, the act on “liberty of conscience, religious freedom and the legal state of churches, denominations and religious communities” is not an extremist, dictatorial law. The amendment of the previous law was necessary and the adopted law reflects other European countries’ practice. The real question is in the details: whether the government will be able to make difference between legal and illegal demand of registration or not.