The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom and, in practice, the government generally enforced those protections. The constitution provides for the free choice or acceptance of a religion or other conscientious convictions, the freedom to practice or abstain from practicing, and the right to exercise or teach one’s religion and beliefs in public or in private, either individually or with others, through religious acts and ceremonies or in other ways.
On April 18, the Parliament adopted a new Fundamental Law, which replaces the previous constitution, effective January 1, 2012. The Fundamental Law provides for the freedom of conscience and religion. These rights include the freedom to choose or change religion or any other persuasion, and the freedom for every person to proclaim, profess, or teach his or her religion in public or in private.
Both the constitution and the Fundamental Law separate church and state. The Fundamental Law stipulates that religious organizations shall be autonomous but the state shall cooperate with churches on community goals. Citizens have the right to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom.
Until the end of the year, the 1990 Act on the Freedom of Conscience regulated the activities of, and the benefits enjoyed by, religious communities, as well as established the criteria for legal designation. County courts implemented the registration of religious groups. To register, a group must have been founded by at least 100 individuals and have a charter and elected bodies for administration and representation. The court determined whether the new group complied with constitutional and legal requirements; if so, the court could not reject the registration request. While any group is free to practice its faith, formal registration grants rights, imposes obligations on operating educational and social institutions, and provides access to several forms of state funding. All registered groups have the same rights and obligations. Under these registration rules, over 300 religious groups gained church status since the regime change. On January 1, 2012, the 1990 Act on the Freedom of Conscience will be replaced by a new Religion Law, which requires Parliamentary approval in order for religious groups to qualify for tax benefits and state support as registered “churches.”
The 1990 Act provides registered religious groups with the right to operate municipal schools through a formal transfer agreement with the central government. Municipalities, churches, or school boards can initiate such transfers. Religious groups maintaining public education institutions are entitled to receive a “supplementary subsidy” as well as the general “normative subsidy” provided to educational institutions by the state. A 2010 law on public education altered the system so the national government, rather than the municipality, funds the “supplementary subsidy,” thereby providing additional incentive for municipalities to initiate such a transfer. As of September, a total of 82 kindergartens and schools were transferred to religious group management by local governments. The Roman Catholic Church took over 53 institutions, the Reformed Church 13, the Baptist Church three, the Lutheran Church five, and other religious groups eight.
Registered religious groups have the right to provide religious education in public schools if requested by students or parents. Religious instruction is not part of the curriculum in public schools, but the government permits primary and secondary school students to enroll in extracurricular religious education classes. Optional religious instruction is usually held after the normal school day and taught in school facilities by representatives of various religious groups. While the government makes provisions for minority religious groups to engage in religious education in public schools, the four “historic” groups provided the majority of after-hours religious instruction. Private schools are not obligated to ensure religious education.
On July 11, Parliament adopted the new Religion Law by a two-thirds majority vote. The government stated that the new law was necessary to ensure that “business churches,” created solely to gain financial benefits from the state under the previous law, could no longer operate under “church status” or qualify for state support and tax benefits. The Religion Law is scheduled to enter into force on January 1, 2012. The final version of the law recognized only 14 churches and religious communities--11 Christian and three Jewish congregations--and stipulated that all other religious groups must apply for official recognition through the relevant ministry. Unlike the previous law, under which courts had the authority, the new law authorized a two-thirds majority of Parliament to recognize religious communities as “churches” if the applicant meets criteria stipulated in the law. These criteria include at least 20 years of operation in Hungary and a minimum of 1,000 congregants. According to the law, religious organizations that fail to meet the criteria or subsequently fail to be approved by Parliament would be able to register as associations, but would lose the state support and tax benefits allocated specifically to churches.
Domestic and international human rights groups criticized the new law for depriving over 300 previously registered religious organizations of their recognized status. Numerous religious groups, human rights groups, and individuals challenged the law in the Constitutional Court on several bases, including violations of the principle of separation of church and state, the ban on discrimination, and the rules of parliamentary procedure.
On December 19, the Constitutional Court (CC) annulled the Religion Law on the grounds that it violated parliamentary procedural rules. The CC determined that a final vote made substantial changes to the original bill, whereas parliamentary procedure allowed only minor revisions at that phase of the legislative process. On the same day, Parliament repealed the Religion Law.
On December 30, Parliament adopted a second version of the Religion Law. The new law recognizes the same 14 “churches” as the version that had been annulled by the CC. All other religious groups may apply for recognition to Parliament’s Committee for Human Rights and Religious Affairs if they meet criteria listed in the newer version of the law. Criteria for recognition include at least 100 years of international operation or 20 years of operation in Hungary; at least 1,000 signatures; religious activity as a primary aim; a formal statement of faith and rites; bylaws; a deed of foundation and internal rules; and elected or appointed administrative and representative bodies. Also, activities of a religious organization may not conflict with the Fundamental Law, pose a threat to national security, or violate basic human rights, such as the right to physical and mental health, and the protection of life and human dignity. According to the law, the committee will request the opinion of the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) as to whether criteria are met by the applicants. The committee will then submit a legislative proposal to Parliament concerning recognition of the religious communities listed.
All religious organizations registered under the 1990 Freedom of Conscience Act (former Church Law) that are not recognized by Parliament under the new law and failed to submit a request for recognition by December 20, 2011, qualify as associations, effective January 1, 2012. In addition, the law requires these groups to initiate a request to change their legal registration to “association” by February 29, 2012, or, in the alternative, state that they do not intend to continue to operate. The law also states that any religious organization that applied for registration by December 20, 2011 but was not recognized by Parliament by February 29, 2012, qualifies as an association, effective March 1, 2012. These groups are required by the law to initiate a request to change their legal registration to “association” by April 30, 2012. Religious groups that were not recognized may reapply for recognition after a year.
Taxpayers can continue to choose to donate 1 percent of their taxes to any recognized religious group. Religious groups no longer recognized by the state as “churches” will no longer be able to receive these specially designated, non-taxable donations or receive special state support. Religious organizations that become associations may receive similar 1 percent tax allocations designated for civil society organizations and may receive state support for certain public benefit activities. However, only recognized “churches” may use taxpayer donations to pay the salaries of individuals who provide religious services, which are in turn exempt from personal income tax. The law does not forbid the use of the term “church” by an association. According to the government, an association that primarily performs religious activities is entitled to continue using the term “church” in its name.
The version of the law adopted on December 30 also includes a provision that states that land owned by a religious organization that loses status as a recognized church and becomes an association will be retained by the association, since the association is the legal successor to that church.
The new law is scheduled to enter into force on January 1, 2012.
As of December 20, the deadline for applications, a total of 85 religious groups applied for registration to the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice.
Domestic and international observers have criticized the law, claiming that it discriminates among churches and politicizes the recognition of religious groups.
Relations between the state and the Roman Catholic Church are regulated by the 1990, 1994, and 1997 Vatican treaties. These agreements also serve as a framework for regulating state relations with other religious groups.
The criminal code has a provision on the “Violation of the Freedom of Conscience and Religion,” which states that whoever restricts another person by violence or threats, or prevents another person from freely exercising his or her religion by violence or by threats, commits a crime, which is punishable by up to three years in prison. If a person abuses someone because of his or her affiliation with a religious group, the crime is punishable by five years in prison.
The four “historic” religious groups (Roman Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, and Jewish) continued to receive 93 percent of state financial support provided to religious groups. All registered religious groups also receive advantageous tax treatment.
In addition to taxpayer contributions, the government allocated public funds to registered religious groups. Under present regulations, the state commits to match the amount of the individual taxpayer contributions. During the year, state funding of churches increased by 2.5 billion forints ($11 million), from 8.2 billion ($37 million) in 2010 to 10.7 billion forints ($48 million).
Additional government funding to religious organizations is provided for a range of activities, such as the maintenance of public art collections; support for religious instruction, education, and culture; annual compensation for nonrestituted religious property; and assistance to church personnel serving the smallest villages. In 2011 this financial assistance significantly increased to 34 billion forints ($154 million) as compared with 23.5 billion forints ($106 million) in 2010.
The state operates the army chaplain service for the four historic religious groups. Free exercise of religion in the military service, not only in private but also in public, is ensured for every denomination. The Ministry of Defense funds and maintains the chaplain service.
A 1996 Ministry of Justice resolution guarantees the right of a detainee to keep unrestricted contact with the cleric or the representative of his or her church, initiated by either party. Detainees in special security regimes may only participate in individual spiritual care and are excluded from spiritual community programs. Penitentiary institutions guarantee the free practice of religion for the detainees. The public prosecutor or the judge may restrict the practice of religion during the course of criminal proceedings. Similar rules apply for inmates in reformatory institutions for juveniles and in police jails. A 2000 Ministry of Justice resolution permits every registered church or religious community to carry out religious activities in penitentiary institutions in harmony with the needs of the detainees.
Property claims can be settled in four ways. These include direct agreement between the owner (municipality) and the respective religious organization on the transfer of real estate property or by a government resolution on the transfer. Claims may also be settled by financial compensation granted by the government if the religious organization prefers to invest in new construction. Finally, the outstanding property claims may be transferred into an annuity in perpetuity, which can be used exclusively for financing religious and other public activities of the church.
The Congregation of Jewish Communities in Hungary (MAZSIHISZ) concluded an agreement with the government in 1998 waiving its right to the remaining formerly Jewish-owned communal properties that had been confiscated during the Holocaust and/or nationalized after 1948, in exchange for a government bond annuity in perpetuity of 3.5 billion forints (then about $52 million).
In 2007, the government and the Hungarian Jewish Heritage Foundation (MAZSOK) signed a $21 million Assistance Contract (negotiated by the World Jewish Restitution Organization) which serves as a five-year down payment for Jewish heirless (and otherwise unclaimed) properties and the “relief and rehabilitation” of Holocaust survivors. According to the agreement, MAZSOK receives the funds and distributes one-third of the amount to survivors in need residing in Hungary. MAZSOK transfers the remaining two-thirds to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) to assist needy Hungarian survivors living outside of Hungary by providing social services and paying for other necessary expenses mainly related to healthcare.
The government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: Easter Monday, Whit Monday, All Saints’ Day, and Christmas.