Religious groups have right to dismiss employees on religious grounds, ECHR findsTuesday, May 22nd, 2012
The right of religious organisations to remove employees on religious grounds has been upheld in a landmark ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which strengthens freedom across the Continent.
In its ruling delivered last week, the Court decided, by six votes to one, that Catholic bishops in Spain could choose not to renew the contract of a Catholic religion teacher who is also an activist in a movement that campaigns for married priests even though the Church requires priests to be celibate.
The teacher left the priesthood some years ago and married, although technically he remains a priest.
This court had to decide whether the Church had the freedom to withdraw its contract from a Catholic religion teacher for religious reasons, or whether the causes of the withdrawal (his marriage and positions taken in the press) enjoy protection under the European Convention on Human Rights; the right to respect for private and family life and the right to freedom of expression.
The Spanish courts had ruled that the Church did have this freedom.
The decision was welcomed by Gregor Puppinck, the Director of the European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ), which provides legal advice in defence of religious freedom at a European level. He said the ruling is, “a significant victory for the freedom of the Church.”
The Court's ruling had, “strongly and clearly stated the principle of the freedom and autonomy of the Church,” he added.
The court said, “The choice of the bishop not to renew the contract of a teacher who is a married priest and activist of the Pro-Optional Celibacy Movement comes under the principle of religious freedom, as protected by the Convention.”
The case, Fernandez-Martínez v Spain, was taken against Spain by the former religion teacher, Mr Fernandez-Martinez, who is a married man and former priest, after he published an article in which he made his membership of the, Pro-Optional Celibacy Movement public.
Spanish religion teachers in State schools are contractual employees of the State, but their appointments are proposed and approved by the local Bishop. The Bishop may withdraw or refuse to renew this agreement, which binds the employer State-school.
The court ruled that the principles of religious freedom and neutrality prevented it from assessing the necessity and proportionality of the decision not to renew the contract because the decision was based on conditions of, “a strictly religious nature.”
Instead, the Court limited itself to checking whether the fundamental principles of the domestic legal order or the dignity of the applicant has not been infringed.
The Court also held that there is a, “special confidence link,” which must unite a Catholic religion teacher with the Catholic Church. The Court ruled, “The applicant was submitted to an increased obligation of loyalty,” because of the special nature of his position and his personal situation.
The Court concluded that, considering the breach of the applicant’s duty of loyalty, the religious authorities, in refusing to renew the agreement, “simply fulfilled their obligations in accordance with the principle of religious autonomy.” They added that, “when the confidence link is broken, as is the case here, the bishop must refrain to propose the applicant for the position in accordance with the code of canon law.”
The Court observed that the Bishop's decision resulted from the internal law of the Church and that the breach of loyalty was a further justification for his non-renewal of the applicant's contract.
by Tom O'Gorman