The constitution and most laws and policies generally protect religious freedom. The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to choose or change one’s religion; profess and teach one’s religion; and perform religious acts, individually or with others, in public and private. The constitution’s preamble expresses gratitude to the nation’s first king, who united the country with “Christian Europe” 1,000 years ago; it acknowledges the role of Christianity in preserving the nation and voices respect for all religious traditions that may exist within the country. The constitution separates church and state and stipulates that churches are autonomous, but the state may cooperate with churches on community goals. Citizens have the right to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom.
The 2011 law on religion alters the registration process for religious groups from one administered by the courts to one requiring the approval of parliament. Religious groups may apply to parliament’s Committee for Human Rights and Religious Affairs for recognition as a “church” if they meet the administrative criteria listed in the law, including: at least 100 years of international operation or 20 years of operation in the country; 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. In addition, a religious group’s activities may not conflict with the constitution, 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 parliamentary committee is required to request the opinion of the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences as to whether an application meets the criteria. The committee then submits a legislative proposal to parliament concerning recognition of the religious groups listed in the proposal. A two-thirds vote of parliament is required for official church recognition. Parliament is not required to state a reason for rejecting a religious group’s application for recognition.
The annex to the religion law lists a total of 27 “churches, religious congregations, and religious communities.” Because this figure includes the Buddhist and Muslim umbrella organizations, the list comprises 32 individual religious groups recognized as “churches.” The list includes the Hungarian Catholic Church, the Reformed Church, the Lutheran Church, the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (MAZSIHISZ), the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (Chabad), the Autonomous Orthodox Israelite Congregation of Hungary, the Buda Diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church of Hungary, the Romanian Orthodox Diocese of Hungary, the Hungarian Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Hungarian Diocese of the Unitarian Church, the Baptist Union of Hungary, the Faith Congregation, the United Methodist Church in Hungary, the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the Hungarian Church of Jehovah’s Witnesses, five Buddhist groups (recognized as a single umbrella organization), and two Muslim groups (also recognized as a single umbrella organization).
The 2011 religion law deregistered more than 350 religious groups previously registered as churches. Under 1990 legislation, courts could grant “church” status to religious groups founded by at least 100 members and possessing a charter and a method of electing representatives. The 2011 law requires deregistered groups to reapply if they wished to regain their “church” status. In 2012, parliament rejected the applications of 66 religious groups, including groups that appeared to meet the basic criteria for church status stipulated in the 2011 law.
Rejections of applications for “church” status are published as parliamentary orders.
Under the 2011 law, formerly recognized churches that applied for registration but did not receive parliamentary approval qualify for status as “associations,” but the law requires them formally to request to change their legal registration to “association.” According to the law, a failure to meet the deadline for requesting association status, or rejection by a court of an application for association status results in the termination of the former church’s legal status without transition to a new legal status, subjecting the group to a liquidation of its assets, which then become property of the state.
A court’s rejection of a deregistered church’s application to become an association is subject to appeal. Any religious group not recognized as a church can reapply for recognition one year after its previous application.
On March 1, the Constitutional Court retroactively annulled parts of the 2011 religion law for violating the constitutional right to a fair process and judicial remedy, indirectly resulting in the infringement of the right to religious freedom and contravening the ban on discrimination. The court criticized parliament’s power to grant “church” status, stating that it could lead to politically biased decisions. The court also voiced concerns about the lack of an obligation for parliament to explain the reasons for rejecting a request by a religious group applying for recognition as a church, as well as the lack of a judicial remedy for parliamentary decisions. The court ruling states that those former churches whose requests for recognition were rejected by parliament or which did not submit a request to parliament for recognition shall be considered as not having been deprived of their church status by the 2011 religion law.
On March 11, parliament adopted the fourth amendment to the constitution, stipulating that parliament may recognize certain organizations that serve a religious mission, such as a church with which the state collaborates in the public interest. The criteria that an organization with a religious mission need to fulfill to be recognized as a church include operation for a considerable period of time, societal support, and “suitability” for cooperation with the state “in the interest of community objectives.” The amendment allows the filing of a constitutional complaint against provisions of the religion law concerning the recognition of churches.
On July 5, parliament adopted further changes to the religion law. The changes introduce new terminology, while maintaining the dual system of “religious communities” (“vallasi kozosseg”), a general term including parliamentary “recognized churches (“bevett egyhaz”) and “religious organizations” (“vallasi tevekenyseget vegzo szervezet”). The new legal provisions leave the right to grant recognized church status in the hands of parliament but reduce major differences between the rights and privileges of recognized churches and those of religious organizations not recognized as churches.
According to the amendment, the minister of human resources (MHR) determines the administrative criteria, while parliament makes the determination concerning more subjective criteria (e.g., an official church’s activities may not pose a threat to national security or violate the right to physical and mental health and the protection of life and human dignity). The new provisions for designation of church status require the church in question have operated for at least 100 years internationally (in which case an official church must have its foreign affiliation certified by at least two other churches of similar faith that are recognized in foreign countries) or 20 years’ existence in Hungary (in which case a church must have a membership of 0.1 percent of the total population, approximately 10,000 people). In addition, the amendment gives parliament more precise criteria with regard to an official church’s suitability for cooperation in promoting community goals. The criteria to be considered include the founding document of the religious group, number of members, network of institutions providing public services, and access by larger societal groups to such services.
The new amendment requires religious organizations applying for official status as churches to submit their applications to the MHR, which has 60 days to assess whether the group fulfills the administrative criteria. The new amendment introduces an obligation for the MHR to consult with a lawyer, religious historian, religious scientist, or sociologist prior to issuing the decision, which is open for judicial review. This new amendment changes the 2011 procedure annulled by the Constitutional Court, whereby parliament’s Human Rights Committee was responsible for collecting the opinion of the president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences as to whether applicants met the criteria. Another alteration to the previous procedure is the introduction of judicial review of the MHR’s decision on non-compliance with the administrative criteria. After the MHR’s decision, the Human Rights Committee has 60 days to invite the applicant to a public hearing and to submit a motion to the parliament on the group’s compliance with the non-administrative criteria. A two-thirds parliamentary majority must adjudicate the request for church recognition within 60 days.
In order to provide an appealable decision in case of a parliamentary rejection of a request for recognition, the new amendment requires a detailed explanation of the reasons an organization was rejected for church status and gives the organization the option of a Constitutional Court review within 15 days of the decision. Parliament also amended the act to authorize the Constitutional Court to assess the legality of the parliamentary proceedings on church recognition. This allows a constitutional complaint against the procedure followed by the parliament in making a decision, but not against the merits of the decision itself. The new amendment retains the one-year ban for religious organizations rejected by parliament before a new request can be submitted.
Under the new amendment, registration of religious organizations has significantly fewer requirements than an application to obtain the status of a recognized church. Based on the new rules, only the Budapest Metropolitan Tribunal is authorized to register religious organizations. The court cannot reject requests for registration if the religious organization has at least 10 founding members whose primary objective is to conduct religious activities that are not in violation of the constitution, other laws, or the rights and freedom of other communities.
On September 16, parliament adopted a fifth amendment to the constitution to bring it in harmony with the new religion law. The amendment specifies religious groups shall initiate applications to cooperate with the state for community goals and parliament shall decide whether to approve the application. Those religious communities approved by parliament for cooperation shall operate as “recognized churches” with specific rights.
The legal designation of “church” confers some privileges on recognized groups, such as automatic access to several forms of state funding and exemption from audits of their financial operations connected to religious activities. Recognized churches and their associated institutions (classified as “internal religious legal entities” providing public services such as health care, education, or social services), have automatic access to both standard and supplementary state subsidies.
Religious organizations, on the other hand, are permitted to take over or create public service institutions, but access to the same level of state funding as recognized churches remains dependent on governmental decisions on a case-by-case basis.
Taxpayers may donate 1 percent of their personal income taxes to a recognized church, which receives matching funds from the government. Religious groups with association status compete with nongovernmental organizations for a similar 1 percent tax allocation designated for civil society organizations.
Recognized churches and religious organizations may use taxpayer donations to pay the salaries of individuals who provide religious services, but only officials of recognized churches are exempt from personal income tax. The use of public funding for religious activities by recognized churches cannot be subject to state audit, while religious organizations are monitored by the State Audit Office.
There are other non-financial benefits enjoyed by recognized churches which remain unavailable to religious organizations. These include the permission to conduct mandatory religious education in public schools or in institutions of higher education and pastoral services in the military, prisons, and hospitals.
Recognized churches also have a broader basis to preserve their legal status. Recognized churches cease to exist and have no legal successor if they dissolve themselves or if they stop activities and fail to designate distribution of their assets. The Constitutional Court can also issue an opinion – which requires a two-thirds parliamentary majority backing – that the activity of the recognized church violates the constitution. In such cases, the assets of the recognized church become state property that must be used to finance public services. Religious organizations, on the other hand, can be terminated upon the initiative of a prosecutor, if the organization’s activity violates the constitution and the court orders dissolution.
Regardless of whether a religious group is recognized by parliament as a church, every religious group is entitled to use the word “church” in its official name. Officials from both recognized and non-recognized churches have the same rights and legal protections (for example, they are not obligated to disclose information which is disclosed to them in the course of their faith-related service). The names, symbols, rites, buildings, and cemeteries are also equally protected. No state office can determine or supervise a group’s activities. Its doctrines, internal regulations, and statutes cannot be subject to state review, modification, or enforcement.
Land owned by a religious group that lost status as a recognized church and became an association is retained by the association, the legal successor of the church. Deregistered churches recognized as associations, however, are prohibited from acquiring new agricultural land.
The religion law affords both churches and religious organizations the right to assume operation of public schools through a formal transfer agreement with the central government. Municipalities, religious groups, or school boards can initiate such transfers, but they can only be executed if the designated religious group is able to collect the signatures of at least 50 percent of the parents and adult students.
On September 1, the government introduced mandatory one-hour-per-week religious or ethics education in the first and the fifth grade of public elementary schools. Students choose between a religious class provided by an officially recognized church of their choice and a generic ethics course taught by ordinary school teachers. Churches are entitled to prepare their own textbooks and determine curricula. Private schools are not obligated to introduce mandatory religious or ethics classes. In the 2013-14 school year 52 percent of first graders chose religious education and 48 percent ethics classes, while 58 percent of fifth graders picked ethics education and 42 percent the religious curricula.
Non-recognized religious organizations are not entitled to provide religious education as part of the mandatory curricula, but they can offer extracurricular religious education in public schools if requested by students or parents. Optional religious instruction is usually held after the normal school day and taught in school facilities by representatives of various religious organizations.
Churches and religious associations operating public education institutions receive the general “normative subsidy” provided to educational institutions by the state, but only churches are entitled to receive automatically a “supplementary subsidy.” According to the law, deregistered religious groups recognized as religious organizations may apply for the supplementary state subsidy to the MHR. The human resources minister decides on applications based on the recommendations of the regional office of the central government and the local municipality (or national minority self-government in the case of a minority educational institution) and contingent upon the applicant’s pledge to assume the provision of public services from the government. The government conducts biennial inspections of religious schools to ensure standards conform to those of government-run schools.
Treaties signed with the Vatican in 1990, 1994, and 1997 regulate relations between the state and the Roman Catholic Church, including financing of public services and religious activities and the settlement of claims for property seized by the state during the Communist era. These agreements also serve as a framework for regulating state relations with other religious groups. On May 14, the Vatican-Hungarian Joint Committee completed three-year-long negotiations and reached an agreement on amending the 1997 bilateral treaty to reflect the current legal environment. On October 21, the government and the Vatican signed a new bilateral treaty; parliament ratified it December 2.
Restricting another person from freely exercising his or her religion through violence or threats is a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. Abusing a person because of his or her religious affiliation is punishable by five years in prison. The criminal code classifies violence against a member of the clergy as violence against an “individual providing public service” and punishes the offense more severely, with a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.
Public incitement of hatred against any national, ethnic, racial, or religious group is a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to three years. Physical assault motivated by national, ethnic, racial, or religious affiliation is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
The law automatically suspends the immunity of a member of parliament (MP) who incites hatred against communities, including religious communities, denigrates national symbols, or publicly denies crimes of the country’s Communist or National Socialist regimes.
The law prohibits public denial, expression of doubt, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crime committed by the National Socialist and Communist regimes, and punishes such offenses with a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
The criminal code includes a ban on public display of symbols of totalitarianism, specifically the swastika, SS badges, arrow crosses, hammer-and-sickle symbols, and five-pointed red stars. The ban is inconsistent with the European Convention on Human Rights, according to 2008 and 2011 rulings by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). On February 19, the Constitutional Court annulled the provisions of the Criminal Code banning the use of symbols associated with the Nazi and Communist dictatorships effective April 30. The court argued penalizing the use of symbols in a general way, without consideration of the purpose, the manner, or the consequences of the display impermissibly restricted freedom of expression. On April 22, parliament amended the criminal code, reintroducing the ban on public use of symbols associated with dictatorial regimes with more narrowly-tailored restrictions. The legislation stipulates wearing, exhibiting, or promoting the swastika, the logo of the SS, the arrow cross, the hammer-and-sickle, or the five-pointed red star in public, in a way that harms the human dignity or the memory of the victims of dictatorships is punishable as a misdemeanor effective May 1.
Both the new civil code (adopted February 11 and effective from March 2014) and the fourth amendment (adopted March 11) to the constitution introduced “hate speech” provisions designed to “protect the dignity of the Hungarian nation or of any national, ethnic, racial, or religious community.” These new constitutional provisions provide for judicial remedies for damage to individuals and their communities that proceed from “hate speech.”
The state operates a military chaplaincy for the four “historical” religious groups. Military personnel from all churches and religious associations have the right to the free exercise of religion in private and public. The Ministry of Defense funds and maintains the chaplaincy.
Penitentiaries must allow the free practice of religion for inmates. A public prosecutor or judge may restrict the practice of religion, however, during criminal proceedings. Detainees have the right to unrestricted contact with representatives of recognized churches. Detainees in special security regimes may only participate in individual spiritual care and are excluded from community spiritual programs. The government’s Prison Pastoral Service, which carries out religious activities in penitentiaries, includes the “historical” religious groups, all of which have unrestricted access to prison facilities to provide religious services for inmates. Access for other recognized churches and religious organizations is granted at the discretion of prison authorities. Rejection of access requests can be appealed to the Ministry of Interior.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), formerly the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research. On October 11, the government was given the IHRA chairmanship beginning in 2015.