Freedom of conscience and religion in Europe

date: 29 October 2021

location: Bratislava, webinar (MS Teams)

presenters: Dr. JUDr. Stanislav Přibyl, Kamila Bubelová JUDr., JUDr. Jan Šejdl, Dr. h.c. Prof. JUDr. Marek Šmid, PaedDr. JCDr. Róbert Brtko

moderators: Prof. JUDr. Mgr. Vojtech Vladár

themes: Actual Questions of State Religious Law

The state religious law webinar entitled ‘Actual Questions of State Religious Law’ was held on 29th October 2021 at 2:00 p.m. through MS Teams. The event was organized within the framework of the Central European Professors’ Network (coordinated by the Ferenc Mádl Institute of Comparative Law in Budapest) and was hosted by Prof. JUDr. Mgr. Vojtech Vladár, PhD., member of the Central European Professors’ Network who works at the Faculty of Law of the Comenius University in Bratislava. The main goal of the event was to discuss the most actual questions of state religious law that resonate not only in the Slovak Republic or the Czech Republic but in the whole area of Central Europe.

The panel discussion was moderated by the organiser and featured well-known experts from the Slovak Republic and the Czech Republic. The first presenter from among the foreign experts was Dr. JUDr. Stanislav Přibyl, Ph.D., Th.D., JC.D. from the Faculty of Theology at the University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice, who is a widely respected expert in the field of state religious law. The second participant was Kamila Bubelová JUDr., an eminent Romance scholar, also recognised in the field of state religious law, who works at the Faculty of Law of Palacký University in Olomouc. The third was JUDr. Jan Šejdl, a doctoral candidate at the Faculty of Law of Charles University in Prague, who is also academically active in this field. Among Slovak scholars, one of the most well-known experts on Slovak state religious law, Dr. h.c. Prof. JUDr. Marek Šmid, PhD. who works at the Faculty of Law, University of Trnava. He is known in particular for his participation in the process of negotiating and concluding the Basic Treaty between the Slovak Republic and the Holy See in 2001. PaedDr. JCDr. Róbert Brtko, CSc.

The lay audience was represented by the students of the Faculty of Law of the Comenius University in Bratislava, who had the opportunity to raise their questions to the experts at the end of the event.

The whole event was recorded, and the recording, with English subtitles, will be published on the website of the Ferenc Mádl Institute of Comparative Law in Budapest.

The webinar started with an introduction by the organiser and a description of the event, followed by a welcome to the participants.

The organiser opened the topic of religious tolerance in the Slovak Republic and the Czech Republic. In this context, he pointed out that there are no problems between churches and religious societies and states and that there is a perfect relationship between them. In this context, participants from the Czech Republic asserted that the word ‘ignorance’ should be used in this case rather than ‘tolerance’.

Then they not only argued historically, but also highlighted the main differences between the status quo of the Slovak Republic and the Czech Republic. In particular, they pointed out the Slovak Republic considers Christianity as part of the national tradition and this fact is accepted even by non-believers, but this is not the case in the Czech Republic. One participant then referred to the modus moriendi to describe the current situation. For example, the contemporary numbers of students of theology indicate that many ineffective endeavours of the communists were carried only nowadays.

Another question was related to the topic of religious parity in the Slovak Republic and the Czech Republic. The organiser asked the participants, in particular about their practice. They admitted their non-acquaintance of any field, where the religious parity would not be observed, considering the financing, access to the grants, access to the schools to teach religion, or the opportunity to organize religious public events. Some of the experts then acknowledged certain inconsistencies, since the Catholic Church, as the largest church, usually loses the most money from the state budget. After all, it has been pointed out that it is logical given the huge contrast in size compared to other churches and religious societies that smaller churches are disproportionately favoured in some respects.

The third actual topic was the usage of religious symbols in the public sphere. Although the Slovak Republic is not affected in any way by this problem the participants considered the development in this area in the near or further future. The organiser pointed out that no such case had ever been brought before the courts in Slovakia in relation to Slovak life and institutions. First of all, the participants stated that since such a problem does not exist, no one can complain, which is the reason why this issue is not analysed by the public media Then they pointed out that this issue is particularly related to the presence of Islam in Western countries, their religious symbols and their clothing. In the Slovak Republic, as in the Czech Republic, there are a few Muslims, but they are still an inconspicuous minority. Moreover, in the last few years, it has become clear that participants at the scientific conferences in Western Europe are trying to impose their agenda on the countries of V4. On the other hand the problem of funding for churches and religious societies is not addressed because it is considered to be solved. In our countries, funding is really the main issue, but not religious symbols. It is therefore obvious that in Western Europe, in particular, they have to deal with the presence of Muslims and their needs. Another participant then mentioned the case ‘Lautsi and others v. Italy’, and drew important principles that could be considered while deciding similar cases in the future. Some problematic parts of the final decision of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights were then highlighted. The participants then compared the situation in Italy, from the point of view of national traditions to the Slovak Republic. Finally, they discussed the lack of legal provisions comparable with the French law of 1905 separating the churches and religious societies from state and the law of that place of 2004 on conspicuous religious symbols, concluding that in the Slovak Republic it is no longer prohibited to display religious symbols even on public buildings in the Slovak Republic. Nevertheless, it was pointed out such an act could be objected to under Article 1 of the Constitution of the Slovak Republic, which states that the state is not bound to any ideology or religion. Considering the mentioned case, they admitted that if the Lautsi case would be related to France, the final decision of the European Court of Human Rights would be probably different.

Another topic was related to the problem of conscientious objection. Specifically, in the Slovak Republic, the Basic Treaty between the Slovak Republic and the Holy See and the agreement between the Slovak Republic and registered churches and religious associations assume such a treaty, but it has not yet been concluded. The organiser then pointed out that when some members of the ruling coalition tried to enforce this in 2006, the coalition broke up and early elections were called. Some politicians are still trying to open up this issue today, particularly in relation to Sunday working. In particular, Czech experts have pointed out that this topic is not attractive to the people of their country and does not presuppose the conclusion of such a treaty. The Slovaks then presented the main concept of the new treaty proposal, which is based on some new principles. The churches and religious societies would have to settle the affected areas, and the state would only be obliged to protect them in accordance with the law. They argued that the first model was rejected because it called for directly implementable contracts. The main question then was, how are they going to protect non-religious people? This objection was rejected by the experts because if the moral principles of the Catholic Church are invoked, then the question of church membership is irrelevant. It was then argued that the use of conscientious objection should be considered a fundamental human right and that the Slovak Republic is now not meeting its obligations in this area. On the other hand, such a treaty is not expected to be concluded in the near or distant future. The Czech experts then pointed out that the original Slovak attempt to make the prohibition of conscience as broad as possible is unique in the world and in many respects can be seen as a transposition of Catholic teaching (in particular the encyclical Evangelium vitae issued by Pope John Paul II in 1995) to this proposal.

The organiser then opened the ‘never-ending topic’ of the funding of churches and religious societies. In this area, too, he expects special treaties to be signed, such as the basic treaty between the Slovak Republic and the Holy See and the agreement between the Slovak Republic and registered churches and religious societies. Instead, the Slovak Republic adopted a new Act No. 370/2019 Z.z. on the financial support of churches and religious societies were passed in the Slovak Republic that may be perceived as a one-sided replacement of these treaties on the part of the state. Specifically, it regulates the salaries of pastors, contributions and, in part, the financial support that finances the operation of the headquarters. Its main concept is that the amount of the allowance depends on the number of worshippers according to the latest census and housing census, not on the number of clergy. The Slovak experts asserted this law cannot replace the assumed treaties, because the character of these sources of law is different. The treaty depends on the will of two parties, whereas law is perceived as a one-sided expression of the will of the state. That is also the main reason why treaty is considered to be the guarantee of stability, since the law may be changed any time after new elections. This new law can therefore be seen as a failed attempt to replace these treaties. Czech experts pointed out different legal regulations in their country. In the Czech Republic is actual especially the process of property composition between the state and churches and religious societies. Nowadays, they are only paid certain amounts, and in a few years’ time, when this process is over, churches and religious societies will have to manage themselves. The clergy are not committed to this solution, despite the fact that in the future they will be able to accept donations from natural or legal persons and donations for specific purposes (in particular to finance the preservation of national monuments). Such a solution would not be possible in the Slovak Republic, where the state traditionally takes care of churches and religious societies.

The last topic to be discussed was related to the proposals de lege ferenda to improve the state religious law in the Slovak Republic and the Czech Republic. The Czech experts pointed to the need to conclude the treaty analogical to the Basic treaty between the Slovak Republic and the Holy See of 2001. As regards the Slovak Republic, they agreed to lower the census of believers for the church or religious society to be recognized by the state. The contemporary requirement of 50 000 believers may not be denoted to be the ordinatio rationis, because ad impossibilia nemo tenetur. Slovak experts then asserted the necessity to finalize the remaining treaties assumed by the Basic treaty between the Slovak Republic and the Holy See, as well as the Agreement between the Slovak Republic and registered churches and religious societies, especially the treaty on the conscientious objection and financing of the churches and religious societies. It was also pointed out that we can expect efforts to open up these contracts in the future, for example with regard to public holidays. The experts asserted impropriety of such actions since it would corrupt the whole system that is consolidated and stable now. The same may be expected in the system of church education, but also in the institution of marriage, especially with reference to the efforts to define it anew. Similar concerns have been expressed about the future opening of the issue of financial separation between the state and churches and religious associations. Concerning the conscientious objection, the Czech experts pointed out that in the case of adoption by homosexual couples, this right is granted to the persons who are responsible for the adoption of the children.

The last question was asked by a participant who wanted to know whether some of the religious recesist could be registered and recognised by the state as churches or religious societies. One Slovak expert pointed out that even meeting all the objective criteria may not be enough. The Ministry of Culture also specifically reviews the existence of a religious agenda, in particular the belief in transcendence and certain general principles which are considered to be beneficial to society as a whole and which flow from it. For this reason, the spiritual purpose is important and this subjective condition can be considered as a conditio sine qua non for the Slovak Republic to recognise all associations as churches or religious societies.

As a final point, the organiser thanked all participants.

                                                                                   Prof. JUDr. Mgr. Vojtech Vladár, PhD.
organiser of the event

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