European court narrowly affirms Catholic religious freedom
 Judges of the European Court of Human Rights. Credit: Council of Europe.
Judges of the European Court of Human Rights. Credit: Council of Europe.
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.- Although the European Court of Human Rights has allowed a bishop to set standards for Catholic religion teachers in Spain, some say the threat of government interference still gives cause for concern.

“If government can dictate who teaches a particular religion, then government can dictate what the content of that religion is,” Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the U.S.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said June 12.

Rassbach, an expert consultant with third parties who intervened in the case, said the human rights court's Grand Chamber recognized that churches “must be able to require their teachers to show loyalty to church beliefs” in order to be “truly autonomous.”

The legal case was brought on behalf of a Catholic religion teacher in Spain, Fernandez Martinez. He taught Catholic religion classes in a state high school under a legal arrangement in which religious communities may approve or reject religion teachers.

In 1997 the local bishop declined to renew Martinez's contract on the grounds the teacher, a former Catholic priest, publicly opposed priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church, the Becket Fund reports.

Martinez appealed the decision to a local employment tribunal, contending that the act violated his right to personal autonomy. He took his appeal to Spain's Constitutional Court and the Third Section of the European Court of Human Rights, losing his appeal there as well.

The Grand Chamber of the Strasbourg, France-headquartered human rights court sided with the bishop by a narrow margin of nine to eight. The majority decision ruled that the teacher did not suffer “disproportionate” interference in his private life and did not suffer the violation of rights guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.

It found that the teacher’s activity and the Catholic Church's mission was “very close” in proximity. Because the teacher was voluntarily bound by “a duty of loyalty to the Catholic Church,” the renewal of his contract could be rejected for failing to fulfill that duty.

Rassbach said the case upheld religious freedom.

“Whether Catholic priests should be celibate or not is something for the Catholic Church to decide, not government officials, and not judges,” he said.

However, Rassbach criticized the “chilling” dissent authored by Judge Dmitry Dedov, whom the Russian government appointed to the human rights court in 2012.

Dedov said Europe’s human rights convention “does not entitle religious organizations, even in the name of autonomy, to persecute their members for exercising their fundamental human rights.” He criticized the Catholic discipline of priestly celibacy as something that “contradicts the idea of fundamental rights and freedoms.”  

His dissent said that media reports on clerical sex abuse have portrayed the “adverse consequences” of “the outdated rule of celibacy.” He also cited Victor Hugo's novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and Colleen McCullough's novel “The Thorn Birds” as portrayals of the negative consequences of celibacy.

Rassbach said the dissent “shows just how high the stakes are here.”

“The dissent should be condemned by all friends of human rights as a call to gross government interference with religious practice that ought to belong to Europe’s past,” he said.

Tags: Religious freedom

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