By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Budapest, Hungary
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– Hungary’s elected official for defending fundamental civil rights has asked the country’s top court to overturn controversial church legislation, amid concerns the law violates religious freedom and the constitutional separation of church and state.
Ombudsman Máté Szabó wants the Constitutional Court to acknowledge that “the legal provisions regulating the recognition of churches are in contrary to the principle of separation of power, to the right to fair procedure and to the right to legal remedy,” his office explained in a statement obtained by BosNewsLife Wednesday, August 15.
Under the recently adopted ‘Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions and Religious Communities’ only 32 of over 300 faith groups in Hungary received formal recognition by Parliament to operate as churches.
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The ombudsman found “the provision contrary to the Fundamental Law, which not considering the constitutional principle of separation of power among government branches, allows the Parliament to decide by itself and inappealably on church status recognition.”
He said the legislation also “lacks the requirement” by lawmakers “of reasoning in case of refusal”, taking away any opportunity for those denied church status to seek “legal remedy.”
Hungary’s center-right government argues that the law aims to prevent abuse of Hungary’s tax regulations and other laws. Critics claim the European Union’s most restrictive church bill only serves the interests and ideology of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Formal recognition gives churches tax-free status, qualifies them for government support and allows them to collect donations during services and do pastoral work in the jails and hospitals of this heavily Catholic nation of some 10 million people.
Ombudsman Szabó, who was elected by Parliament, said he turned to the Constitutional Court “after analyzing the initiatives of many religious organizations”.
He indirectly referred to devoted Christian groups and evangelical churches who were among those expressing concerns that Prime Minister Orbán’s government would turn back the clock to the Communist-era of two decades ago, when religion was discouraged in Hungary.
“The close relation to freedom of religion makes it indispensable that the decision on the recognition of the church, on rendering the religious status meets all guarantees protecting fundamental rights,” Szabó stressed.
He suggested that the law violates the constitution. “On the basis of the principle of separation of power, the Parliament cannot exercise tasks, during which it makes political decisions affecting fundamental civil rights, without having appropriate constitutional guarantees,” he said in a statement distributed by his office.
Jura Nanuk, the founder and president of the Central-European Religious Freedom Institute in Budapest welcomed the remarks. “Finally [there is] some light at the end of the tunnel,” he added.
The United States and European Union have also expressed concerns about the church regulations and other acts introduced by the Orbán administration, saying they “threaten democratic checks and balances” and undermine previously independent institutions, ranging from media and the Central Bank, to churches.
Besides religion, Szabó has been at loggerheads with Prime Minister Orbán over several other laws, including education legislation.
In a clear reference to the ombudsman, Orbán reportedly told a recent meeting of Fidelitas, the youth group of his Fidesz party, that the bill was under a “counter-revolutionary” attack.
The ombudsman, who is also known as the parliamentary commissioner for basic rights, had asked the Constitutional Court to review the education law. He also questioned a bill regulating the benefits and labor market position of the handicapped.
Orbán has been criticized internationally for his perceived autocratic and nationalistic style, charges he strongly denies.