H. David Baer: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”: Continuing problems with Hungary’s law on religion

H. David Baer, associate professor of theology and philosophy at Texan Lutheran University, is spending his sabbatical in Hungary where he is doing research with the support of IREX, an organization that has been supporting research and exchange in Europe and Eurasia. David Baer is also a visiting research fellow for the 20014/15 academic year at the Central European University located in Budapest.

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During the last two years I have devoted considerable research to assessing the impact of Hungary’s religion law on deregistered, or non-established, churches.  This research has consisted of surveys as well as extensive field work carried out during extended visits in Hungary.  Today, in the short time allotted to me, I would like to highlight what I see as key problems with Hungary’s law on religion.  These problems can be grouped into two sets.  The first set concerns the recognition procedure itself; the second set concerns the legal status of religious communities not recognized as churches.  I will discuss these problems in turn, but to do so clearly let me first comment briefly on the religion law’s legislative history.

The religion law’s troubled legislative history

The first version of the law on “the Right of Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on the Legal Status of Churches, Religious Denominations, and Religious Communities” was passed as Act C of 2011.  An initial bill was brought to the floor by the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), a coalition party in the ruling government.  The original bill listed 44 recognized churches and provided a procedure by which additional religious groups could receive recognition through the courts.  However, two hours before the final vote, the original bill was replaced with a completely different one, introduced on the floor by a member of the ruling Fidesz party.  The new bill, which was passed into law, reduced the number of recognized churches from 44 to 14, and stipulated, further, that future recognition of churches would be determined by a two-thirds vote in Parliament.  Although Hungary’s Constitutional Court later struck down Act C on procedural grounds, an identical version of the bill was resubmitted to Parliament and passed as Act CCVI of 2011, going into effect on January 1, 2012.

In February, Parliament expanded the number of recognized churches from 14 to 27, a list which now includes smaller Christian and non-Western religious groups.  This is still fewer than the number of recognized churches included in the original Christian Democratic bill.  Moreover, at the time it was passed, Act CCVI stripped all religious groups not recognized by Parliament of legal standing.  In my estimate, as many as 150 religious communities may have been deregistered by the law.

Hungary’s Constitutional Court subsequently struck down numerous provisions in Act CCVI on the grounds that the recognition procedure did not adequately guarantee the rights of due process and legal remedy to all religious communities.  The government responded by amending both Hungary’s constitution, or what is called the Basic Law, and Act CCVI of 2011.  Although some of these amendments improve parts of the law, they also preserve Parliament’s power to determine church recognition.  Thus they fall short of addressing adequately the issues of due process and legal remedy raised by the Court.  In this respect, as well as others, Hungary’s religion law remains highly discriminatory.

Problems with the recognition procedure

The government responded to the Court’s concern about due process by modifying Hungary’s laws to allow explicitly for political discretion in the decision concerning which

religious groups to recognize as churches.  Act CCVI now stipulates as a condition for recognition that a religious community must be suitable for cooperation with the state in the pursuit of public goods.  A religious community demonstrates this suitability on the basis of its charter, the size of its membership, and its previous activities.  These, however, are vague criteria.  The current list of recognized churches includes many small churches with a small social presence, while simultaneously excluding larger churches with a significant social presence.  Because the criteria are vague, they open up a legal space in which Parliament is free to act in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner.

The government responded to the concerns about legal remedy by introducing a passage into Act CCVI that allows religious communities to appeal their rejection by Parliament before the Constitutional Court.  That is, a rejected religious community would ask the high court to review Parliament’s specific decision to deny it church status.  However, since both the Basic Law and the law on religion allow Parliament to exercise political discretion in determining which religious groups are suitable to cooperate with the state, it is hard to envision a scenario in which the Constitutional Court could ever overturn a decision by Parliament.  If Parliament has a constitutional right to enact arbitrary decisions, the Court cannot strike down Parliament’s decision for being arbitrary.

To illustrate the kind of arbitrary treatment Hungary’s new constitution protects, one might consider the case of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship.  The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is a church which, despite its large social presence, has been denied recognition by Parliament.  The church operates a large homeless shelter in Budapest and five nursing homes.  It also maintains a seminary, and educates more than 3000 children, mostly Roma, in preschools and elementary schools throughout the country.  Although the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship was included among the recognized churches in the original Christian Democratic draft of the law, it was not included in the bill submitted to Parliament by Fidesz’s representative.

The president of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is Gábor Iványi.  Iványi was an opposition figure in the communist period and part of a group that broke away from the Hungarian Methodist church in the 1970’s to establish the Evangelical Fellowship.  Pastor Iványi also baptized Viktor Orbán’s first two children.  The young Orbán, perhaps, was attracted to Iványi because of his strong anti-communist credentials.  Since then, however, the relation between the two men has soured.  Today Iványi is one of the Orbán government’s most vocal critics.

In a published interview, the news weekly Heti Válasz asked the Minister of Human Resources, Zoltán Balog, about the government’s relationship with Iványi.  Balog, who plays a key role in deciding which religious communities are forwarded to Parliament to be considered for recognition, was asked whether Orbán’s children had been baptized in a false church.  He responded as follows:

Baptism is valid even if it is performed by a midwife, which means that Orbán’s child is all right. In addition, it is not in good taste, in my opinion, if someone appears all over the media announcing that he baptized the prime minister’s children. What kind of spiritual leader gives statements about the spiritual life of believers who have been entrusted to him? I would never do such a thing because I take being a pastor seriously. And as to those who don’t, why are they surprised that the government, in turn, does not take them seriously?

If this is intended as an explanation for why the government has refused to recognize Iványi’s church, then such an explanation appears incompatible with the state’s obligation to adopt a neutral attitude toward religious communities.  Are we to understand that the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship is not suitable for cooperation with the state because, in the view of a government minister, its president does not take his pastoral vocation seriously?  Although this is admittedly a rhetorical question, the point is that nothing in Hungarian law appears to rule out such prejudiced considerations from Parliament’s decision concerning which churches to recognize, and nothing in Hungarian law appears to guarantee the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship legal remedy against Parliamentary decisions rendered on such a prejudiced basis.

Problems with the legal status of deregistered religious groups

When it reduced the number of recognized churches in Hungary, Act CCVI simultaneously placed the formerly recognized, now deregistered, churches into a no-man’s land in which they had no clear legal status.  Deregistered religious communities were forced to apply for recognition as civil organizations, but neither Hungary’s constitution nor its civil code extended basic religious freedom rights to civil organizations.  In this respect, recent amendments to Act CCVI represent a notable improvement.  The law now creates two clear categories for religious groups.  The first category consists of “established churches” (bevett egyházak), which are the churches recognized by Parliament.  The second category consists of “organizations conducting religious activity” (vallási tevékenységet végző szervezetek).  These religious organizations are registered by the courts, rather than by Parliament, and they enjoy many of the protections associated with the right of religious freedom.

Even so, this two-tiered classification system remains highly discriminatory.  Unlike established churches, religious organizations do not enjoy tax exemptions, nor do they receive the same kind of subsidies as churches.  Beginning in 2014 the accounting laws applicable to established churches will be significantly different from those applicable to religious organizations.  The two tiers are also treated unequally in respect to religious practice.  For example, the clergy of established churches enjoy privileges of confidentiality (e.g., a priest can’t be forced to divulge secrets heard in the confessional) that clergy in religious organizations do not.  Although religious instruction has recently been incorporated into the national school curriculum, religious organizations are prohibited from offering religious instruction in public schools.  Before the new religion law and the change in Hungary’s national curriculum, however, many of these same religious communities could offer optional religious instruction in public schools when there was demand for it.  Moreover, when placed in the context of broader changes in Hungary’s legal environment, the new law on religion functions to burden and restrict the activity of non-established religious organizations.

The best way to understand how the law functions in practice is by way of concrete illustrations.  There is a Buddhist community in Hungary, consisting mostly of Roma, called the Jai Bhim Network.  It is actively engaged in educating disadvantaged gypsy children.  When Jai Bhim was still a recognized church, it rented out several classrooms from a public school in Ózd, a city frequently in the Hungarian news because of racial tensions.  When Jai Bhim lost church status, all of its contracts, including its contract with the school in Ózd, where voided.  City leaders were unwilling to negotiate a new contract, and Jai Bhim had to abandon its activities in Ózd.  Of course, members of Jai Bhim remain free to practice their religion, and they are even able to maintain a few schools.  However, their activities have been restricted, and, lacking the same legal protections enjoyed by established churches, they are more vulnerable to discrimination.

In 2011, Hungary conducted a national census, which included a question about religious affiliation.  In the town of Sajókaza, where Jai Bhim is active and maintains a school, more than 300 Gypsies identified themselves as Buddhists to census workers.  Shortly thereafter, the local police went knocking door-to-door in the Roma neighborhood, asking if the residents had identified themselves as Buddhists on the census.  According to some news reports, the mayor of Sajókaza later informed the town’s Gypsies that the Catholic priest would neither bury Budhhists nor baptize their children.  A few months later, the Hungarian Labour Inspectorate, responding to an anonymous tip, audited the school operated by Jai Bhim in Sajókaza.  Because this school was no longer a church school, the regulations pertaining to it were different.  The school needed to keep a record not only of the hours teachers spent in the classroom, but also the hours teachers spent preparing for class outside of the classroom.  Because it failed to do this, the school was fined 3.2 million HUF (approximately $14,000).  Although the fine was later reduced to 1.75 million HUF, this remains a large sum which the school must pay at the same time its operating budget has been reduced by the loss of state subsidies granted to churches and church schools.

In fact, the representatives of many religious communities have told me they worry about the tax authority.  At any time, they say, the government can order the audit of a religious community it dislikes, and because the accounting laws are complicated and constantly changing, the tax authority can always discover an irregularity and levy a fine large enough to drive a small religious community into bankruptcy.  Established churches, by contrast, will be able to maintain financial records in accordance with their own internal rules starting in 2014.  Thus the tax authority will not be able to audit the records of established churches as carefully or rigorously as it can audit the records of businesses and religious organizations.

Animal farm

The situation regarding religious freedom in Hungary might thus be summarized as follows.  Hungary’s two-tiered classification of religious groups functions discriminatorily by affording different rights and protections to established churches and religious organizations.  Because religious organizations enjoy fewer rights and protections, they are vulnerable to acts of discrimination from state and bureaucratic offices.  Because the registration process is thoroughly political, religious organizations are denied an effective legal avenue to obtaining the rights and protections enjoyed by established churches.  Like the pigs who ruled George Orwell’s Animal Farm, those who crafted Hungary’s new law on religion might well concur that, “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

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tappanch
Guest

Unfortunately, democracy is on the retreat worldwide. Democratic majority just eliminated filibuster in the US Senate.

R.I.P 1837-2013

elisabeth
Guest
hello David, you wrote a long articel, English is not my mother languae but i understood most of your statement. With respect, i think that the the first step for every religion is that the bills they have, must been payed by themselfs and not through the tax obligations of atheists or other belivers, is people of the state. Its the principal of what you like thats where you pay for. I go to the movie i pay for the film and the building and heating. When people go to church, they can go to a little one and pay for it. When the belivers want a big church, so more heating they have to pay more. I understand that the history of Europe is based on the christian religion, and tradition. As you know churches donot have the monopoly, what is good and what is bad to do. They do not have the monopoly of telling the people who they can love. So all the things the represant of any church say, is a private opinion. Most atheist respect , or try to, religion, but it is a private case, and so is the financial part. The Hungarian goverment,… Read more »
tappanch
Guest

Eva, I know. Still, roles can reverse. One check less is one nail more.

Istvan
Guest

I recall seeing a similar discussion of the problems relating to official established churches and religious organizations in Hungary coming from the conservative Assemblies of God in the USA. Hungarians probably know of Jimmy Swaggert and Jim Bakker who were members of that church and were involved in scandals. I believe the Assemblies of God in Hungary is called the Hungarian Pentecostal Church and it was recognized in February of 2012 by Parliament.

It is my understanding that the recognition of the Pentecostal Church came after a visit by a delegation of members of the US House of Representatives that included at least one member of the Assemblies of God church to Hungary. The irony of this is most Assemblies of God preachers call for a godly state that works with the church, which effectively is what the Hungarian Basic Law calls for. But when that godly Hungarian state excluded their church they denounced it and resorted to good old lobbying to get the Hungarian Pentecostal Church on the approved list.

I recommend keeping government totally out of religion, including funding religious schools, but the Pentecostals don’t. They like the Hungarian approach except when they are excluded.

andy "hey, we still losin' it..."
Guest
In my humble opinion, all churches and religions as long as these believe in the rights of all to live a peaceful life according to each ones beliefs are a definite positive influence. Particularly in a world today where humans are increasingly selfish, self-abosrbed and unprinicpled. With regard to religion the Orbanists are again twisting reality according to their authoritarian, maffia-like approach to all issues and the eligibility to the distribution of state funds. Orbanists are trying to sweep Rev.. Ivanyi — one of the few truly caring souls — off course and into oblivion though he has been uniquely active successful since many years in alleviating homelessness and suffering. Religion has an important function in society for those that use it for non-exclusionary purposes but for mental cleansing and helping define a quality of purpose in life. In this sense, like the area of culture or even sports, it has a significant contribution to make to society and the cleansing of the soul. It is another sorry state of affairs where the state is trying to nickle-and-dime and select by arbitrary or selfish goals those who can and those who canot partake in these activities which are generally for… Read more »
Pal
Guest

Tappanch: Potus has the right to appoint those judges, what happened is that in the Senate a normal majority is required now. The 60-person supermajority, which remains in place for everything else, was/is a travesty. There are a lot of threats to democracy,, including in the US, I could name a dozen, but this is not one of them.

It has been said that Fidesz is the best pupil of the Republicans, their uncompromising, unscrupulous, bullying, take-no-prisoner style approach to politics. I agree.

In fact I would say that US has never managed to have a greater influence on Hungary in any way than when this type of Republican-style bullying politics, not the substance of it of course, was hungrily imported by Fidesz.

It was a match made in heaven: the aggressive and ambitious Fidesz ready to rule and the American campaign managers preaching aggressiveness and total abandon of any scruples.

Marcel Dé (@MarcelD10)
Guest

Istvan :
I recommend keeping government totally out of religion…

I don’t think that’s possible. Religion is a social practice, and freedom of association has to be regulated. Tax and accounting regulation and oversight, as well as public sector contracts, are classic levers of governmental action on labour unions, sports clubs, political parties… and religious communities.

The question is wether the State is being fair – and this piece clearly establishes it’s not, as it leaves a whole part of civil society at the mercy of partisan politics.

GW
Guest

Let’s remember that most of these votes were not blocked by a supermajority of 60 votes for cloture (to end a filibustered debate) but simply by single Senators putting a “hold” on the nomination, thus not even letting the nomination to reach a vote of any sort. And the number of Obama’s nominees that have been held back from a vote has reached a total exceeding that of _all_ the blocked nominees of _every previous President_.

Istvan
Guest

All churches can be recognized as not for profit entities it is not that hard. Does that open the door to fraud? Yes it does and then it becomes a criminal matter not a religious one. This happens all the time in the USA, where the Internal Revenue Service intervenes against fake churches that are running for profit operations. It happens so often that it is not even news.

Church based schools can be operated and be not for profits without problems, in certain situations there can even be public funding of these schools as long as all religious studies are separated from that reimbursement scheme. So for example In some cities in the US provide payment vouchers to Catholic schools for low income families, but not for religious studies. The Catholic Church in the USA has agreed with that practice.

Guest
Let me first say that I am not religious and soul is a meaningless word to me. I attended a religious school and got a fair knowledge of the Bible which helps to understand Western culture but I never succumbed to the idea of having an immortal soul. Neither did my class mates. I cannot exclude that churches in their infancy were seriously concerned with souls for their own sake. However as the churches matured they put the emphasis on controlling people by threatening them with the loss of their souls if they did not obey the church and did not give it money. This was a very successful strategy for centuries but it does not sell so well any more. Nowadays threatening people with the loss of their jobs is much more efficient. The aim of the Orban government is to create a kingdom of absentee landlords and god-fearing serfs. The assumption is that god-fearing serfs can be created by religious schools. They cannot. The money the government spends on the churches for that purpose is wasted. Creating absentee landlords, on the other hand, is straight forward. There has been an outcry about political discrimination of churches. Money and… Read more »
Pete H.
Guest

GW :
Let’s remember that most of these votes were not blocked by a supermajority of 60 votes for cloture (to end a filibustered debate) but simply by single Senators putting a “hold” on the nomination, thus not even letting the nomination to reach a vote of any sort. And the number of Obama’s nominees that have been held back from a vote has reached a total exceeding that of _all_ the blocked nominees of _every previous President_.

Exactly – rather than setting democracy backward, this procedural change ensures that the democratic will of the majority is not thwarted for petty reasons by the minority. This is not a matter of the majority stripping civil liberties from those represented by the minority.

spectator
Guest

Let me remind – all of – you, that religion in Orbanistan nothing else, but one of the tools of control.

As long as there are people in need of belief in something/someone else than themselves, there is an open field for the entrepreneurs and abusers of such needs. And there are quite a number of those people in Hungary, quite clearly.

Orbán, using this tool rather skilfully, while successfully mixing the national-nationalist-anti-communist sentiments with religion: you, who are true believers and loathers of any kind of liberal idea while worshipping ME and the Holy Mary, you are the true Hungarians – as opposed to those free-thinking liberals who dare to use their own head and caused the country all these disasters like the EU membership..!

And there comes the “God save Viktor” and everybody feels blessed…

Never mind, though, that dear Viktor himself just couldn’t care less about any other God, but himself, let alone, he is a PM of a secular state, as long as the support of religious beliefs pays by the ballot boxes, he will give his best – and all your money – to the churches with the most influences.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo.
Or else.

Mutt
Guest
tappanch : Eva, I know. Still, roles can reverse. One check less is one nail more. The way I see it, these majority rules not helping the democracy at all. They can make the legislation stall in short term, by blocking decisions and in long term, the way Orban is cementing the power of his cronies in Hungary. The only reason for these laws is to prevent frequent changes back and forth when the opposing parties are close to 50-50. They should have been repealed earlier. Regarding the church state separation I can’t see any reason why should the taxpayers finance each-others religions and I treat atheism also a religion in this sense. The fog the opponents of the separation are trying to make is they try to blend in the non-religious activities into the religion. What I mean is schools, hospitals, charity – in general services that the state is expected to provide. These have nothing to do with churches. Any group, who runs a hospital or a school, independently from their views, has to get support from the state the same way as the public (nonreligious) institutes get. 100 children finishing high school, 100 sick cured. Same quota.… Read more »
gdfxx
Guest
Pete H. : GW : Let’s remember that most of these votes were not blocked by a supermajority of 60 votes for cloture (to end a filibustered debate) but simply by single Senators putting a “hold” on the nomination, thus not even letting the nomination to reach a vote of any sort. And the number of Obama’s nominees that have been held back from a vote has reached a total exceeding that of _all_ the blocked nominees of _every previous President_. Exactly – rather than setting democracy backward, this procedural change ensures that the democratic will of the majority is not thwarted for petty reasons by the minority. This is not a matter of the majority stripping civil liberties from those represented by the minority. I suggest that those who applaud this change in the US Senate procedure read the editorial of The Washington Post on the issue (not a right wing publication). It sharply decries it, the main reason being that the Democrat majority in the Senate (and a democrat President) is not a given and some Republican Senators already threaten to fill the Supreme Court with the likes of Justice Scalia, as soon as they have the opportunity.… Read more »
fan fan fan vermes vermes vermes
Guest
fan fan fan vermes vermes vermes

David Baer had already a famous letter exchange with a bigot Hungarian Catholic high priest.

We need new Catholic figures to give Hungarian believers a new direction.

For a good start all people could buy a Geza Vermes book on the history of Christianity.

Refe
Guest
gdfxx: WP has been a reliable supporter of the government, regardless of the administration. It has never been a lefty or liberal paper, not even in the 70’s. But post-Watergate, it gradually stopped being critical, lost its way and so it is not surprising that it lost its influence. You may not have known, but the Republicans were always very successful in pushing through their favored candidates regardless of the 60 person majority rule. Like Orban in Hungary, the Republicans had a long-term vision to take back the judiciary after the liberal 70’s, there is a library written on this topic. They were great negotiators and ruthless, so they always won on this front, and at the same time the Democrats, like the Hungarian Left, has been weak, divided and in usual disarray. The party discipline of the Republicans has been traditionally much greater (at least in the last 20 years). But exactly because the GOP has been traditionally very smart in its judiciary strategy and the Democrats just could not anyway prevent the conservative takeover of it, there is just no downside for the Democrats. In addition, whatever then commentators say, the division between the two parties is already… Read more »
Istvan
Guest

Refe I concur with your assessment of President Obama. I also suspect as troop levels drop in Afghanistan he will take a political hit if the Taliban breach more bases. He is in a politically precarious position.

gdfxx
Guest

Refe:”But exactly because the GOP has been traditionally very smart in its judiciary strategy and the Democrats just could not anyway prevent the conservative takeover of it, there is just no downside for the Democrats.”

Not at this moment. It is not just the WP predicting dire consequences…

test test test sanity
Guest
test test test sanity

Refe – etc. Obama is turning out as destructive to the USA and World, as o-v to Hungary and Europe.

gdfxx
Guest

Eva S. Balogh :
I couldn’t find the Washington Post article except one that was written by a Republican politician. However, there are some conservative commentators at W. For example, Robert Kagan. It is possible that the article you are referring to comes from one of them. That is, of course, not the paper’s opinion.

Here it is, from the editorial board:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/after-filibuster-vote-both-parties-will-face-nasty-nuclear-fallout/2013/11/21/8763981e-522c-11e3-9fe0-fd2ca728e67c_story.html

andy "little room to wiggle"
Guest

Letter of The Rev Iványi Gábor (report of nov 27th Amerikai Népszava) thanks the Hungarian electorate for providing 17,000 signatures, — well more than the necessary 10,000 — for re-consideration by the government for its former “approved church” status.

http://nepszava.com/2013/11/magyarorszag/ivanyi-gabor-koszonti-a-demokracia-hiveit.html

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