WARSAW, Poland

Hungary’s Constitutional Court has annulled a new law that would have withdrawn legal recognition from all but a handful of the country’s registered religious associations. However, a church commentator warned that the ruling was “just a technical delay” and predicted the law would still be enforced from the start of 2012.

“Several petitions were received from individuals, legal entities, and churches, citing the unconstitutional nature of the whole law or certain provisions,” the Court said in a statement accompanying its detailed 15,000-word Dec. 19 ruling.

“These petitions concerned the right to religious freedom, principle of church-state separation, rule of law and right to a fair trial, as well as domestic and international law and the government’s obligation to observe constitutional rule and the prohibition of discrimination.”

Under the “Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion,” enacted on July 12 with backing from the governing center-right Fidesz party, only 14 of Hungary’s 362 registered churches and religious associations would have been recognized by the state, enabling them to claim legal status and public subsidies, while others would have been required to apply for court registration after gaining approval by a two-thirds vote in parliament.   

Religious groups would have had to meet seven criteria for recognition, including a minimum of 1,000 members and a presence in Hungary for at least 20 years.

The law was welcomed as a “positive step” by Zoltan Tarr, general secretary of the Hungarian Reformed church, who told ENInews the country’s existing 1990 Act on Churches had been “too liberal,” having proven “a temptation for many groups to use all the privileges of churches.”

However, it was condemned as a “serious setback for religious freedom” in a petition to parliament by Hungary’s Civil Liberties Union and Helsinki Committee, co-signed by Human Rights Without Frontiers, the European Humanist Federation, Interfaith Alliance, and other foreign organizations.

Meanwhile, several smaller denominations also deplored the new law, including Hungary’s Unitarian Church and Church of God, whose leader, Laszlo Debreceni, said minority faiths would be denied resources and “handled very differently” at local government level.

“Most Christian churches may eventually be accepted again, so this may not be an issue of religious freedom in the long term,” said Debreceni in a July interview. “But it is a step back for human rights in the short term, since it means one political party, with its governing majority, will decide who can be a church and who can’t.”

In its statement, the Constitutional Court said it was annulling the law, leaving the 1990 law still in place. It added that it had objected to the requirement of a two-thirds approval in parliament before a religious group could apply for court registration, but said legislators had also “violated legal guarantees of a democratic exercise of power” by rewriting key parts of the law before its final enactment, thus denying MPs and interested parties a right to inspect the final text.

Welcoming the ruling, the U.S-based Institute on Religion and Public Policy, which campaigned against the legislation, praised the court for “striking down a repressive religion law” and called on the government of premier Viktor Orban to avoid “codifying systematic discrimination.”

“This new law is similar to those of Austria and Germany, and I don't see any danger to religious freedom,” said Gergeley Szilvay, co-editor of Magyar Kurir, a Roman Catholic news agency. “The parliamentary vote clause was problematic, since it made registration dependent on a shifting majority. But that isn’t a reason to reject the whole law.”