Last Friday Hungary’s highest court, the Kúria, rendered a judgment that legal scholars in Hungary consider historic. To put it in the simplest terms, the panel of judges declared that segregation of the Roma in parochial schools is legal.
This is not the first time that I’ve written about an elementary school in Nyíregyháza maintained by the Greek Catholic Church. A foundation called Chance for Children Foundation (CFCF) sued the Greek Catholic Church because, in 2011, they reopened a segregated school that served Roma children from the nearby Gypsy settlement Huszár telep.
The history of this case goes all the way back to 2007 when Nyíregyháza had a socialist mayor and town council. At this time, in order to avoid a court case, the town decided to close the school for Roma children. Instead, they provided a school bus to take children from Huszár telep to a school 2.3 km. away that had been newly refurbished on EU money. But in 2010 Nyíregyháza elected a new Fidesz administration, and it was clear from the very beginning that this educational arrangement was doomed. First, the city refused to provide a school bus for the children of Huszár telep. Then it was decided that the Greek Catholic Church would reopen the Roma school. (In 2012 the Greek Catholic Church was also given control of the modern “white” school.)
CFCF sued in 2011, but it took three years for the lower court in Nyíregyháza to hand down its decision in March 2014. It was at that time that I published a post titled “The Hungarian government supports school segregation for Roma.” On what grounds did I come to this conclusion? The reason was simple enough. Zoltán Balog over the years had made no secret of his belief that segregated schools in the hands of churches are “the citadels of convergence” for Roma students. He imagined integration as a two-step process. First you put the disadvantaged, mostly Roma, children into segregated schools where “they will catch up.” Once they achieve the requisite level of knowledge and skills in these segregated schools, the Roma children can be integrated into the mainstream population.
Balog was so convinced that his theory was sound and had such trust in the Greek Catholics’ special abilities that he himself testified during the trial which, by the way, CFCF won. Naturally, the Greek Catholic Church appealed, but CFCF won again in a judgment by the Debrecen Appellate Court. After another appeal, the case ended up in the Kúria where to everybody’s surprise the judgment was overturned. The Greek Catholic Church won. Segregation was legalized. There is no further recourse.
The reason the Kúria gave for its judgment is that the free choice of religion and school supersedes the prohibition of segregation. This judgment presupposed that all Roma parents chose the nearby elementary school for their children because they wanted to provide them with an education administered by the Greek Catholic Church. In the whole of Hungary there are only 268,935 individuals who, when asked about their religious affiliation, considered themselves Greek Catholic. This is a very small number, especially when you compare it to the 5.5 million Catholics and the 1.6 million Hungarian Reformed. The church leaders themselves admitted that practically no children were Greek Catholic.
The Greek Catholics’ interest in teaching and assisting the Roma stems from the pastoral work among the Roma of a priest called Miklós Sója (1912-1996). He spent years working with the Roma in Hodász, a village about 50 km from Nyíregyháza. Actually, the segregated Gypsy school is named after him. The church wanted to continue the Greek Catholic tradition of pastoral work among the Gypsies. They found the school close to the miserable settlement of Huszár telep in Nyíregyháza a perfect place to pursue their educational and charitable work.
From what I have been reading on the subject, the Greek Catholic Church never wanted to have an integrated school because their focus is on Gypsy pastoral work. During the first trial, the judge asked the representative of the church whether perhaps it would be possible to allow the 12 Roma first-graders to attend the “white school” that the church also ran. The priest, after some hesitation, said that perhaps they could create a separate class for the Roma children. The judge had to remind him “what this suit is all about.”
Magyar Nemzet a few days ago, before the Kúria’s decision, published a report on conditions in the Roma school and the parents’ and students’ satisfaction with the present arrangement. The picture couldn’t be rosier. Happy children, happy parents who consider CFCF mere troublemakers. They are very satisfied with the education their children receive. One boy’s parents decided to transfer him from an integrated school to the segregated one because he was unhappy in school. In the Miklós Sója school he made many friends, and his grades have improved dramatically. (For that latter development I could offer a simple explanation: lower expectations at the Miklós Sója school.)
CFCF and those who believe in integrated schools see the situation differently. They point out that the parents chose this particular school not because it was run by the Greek Catholics but because it was close. Even the Magyar Nemzet report admits that since there is no longer a school bus to take the children to school, they would have to use the city bus, which they could hardly afford. Gábor Daróczi, a board member of CFCF, called the judgment “apartheid under the aegis of religious freedom.” He argued that the Kúria’s judgment “practically put a how-to handbook into the hands of those churches that would like to run segregated schools.” According to CFCF, it is likely that political pressure was applied because Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, has been a strong supporter of the church all along. CFCF is planning to appeal to the European Commission which, they hope, will begin an infringement procedure against Hungary just as they did earlier when similar infringements of European law were found in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia.
But CFCF’s strongest argument is that “there is no road to university from segregated schools.” There is a foundation called Romaveritas, apparently financed in part by the Norwegian Fund, that provides monthly stipends to about 15 Roma students a year for university studies. Apparently, all students currently enrolled in the program came from integrated schools. They demonstrated in front of the Kúria building, emphasizing the need for integration, but to no avail. Roma leaders and civil rights activists are shocked.