A combination of historical and modern constitutional documents guarantees freedom of “conscience and creed.” The law guarantees the freedom of religious belief and the right of all residents to join, participate in, leave, or abstain from any religious community. The law grants registered religious societies the right to public practice and independent administration of their internal affairs.
Several constitutional provisions protect religious freedom. The main pillars are historical laws on fundamental rights and freedoms and treaties and conventions which form part of the constitution. Anti-discrimination legislation prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. Citizens have the right to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom.
The law prohibits public incitement to hostile acts against a church group, religious society, or other religious group if the incitement poses a danger to public order. It also prohibits incitement, insult, or contempt against such groups if such action violates human dignity.
By law, religious groups are divided into three legal categories (listed in descending order of status): officially recognized religious societies, religious confessional communities, and associations. Each category possesses specific rights, privileges, and legal responsibilities.
There are 16 officially recognized religious societies: the Catholic Church, the Protestant churches (specifically Lutheran and Presbyterian, called “Augsburg” and “Helvetic” confessions), the Islamic community, the Old Catholic Church, the Jewish community, the Eastern Orthodox Church (Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, and Bulgarian), The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the New Apostolic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Methodist Church of Austria, the Buddhist community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Islamic-Alevi Community, and the Free Christian Churches.
Recognition as a religious society under the law includes the right to participate in the program requiring mandatory church contributions by church members, provide religious instruction in public schools, and bring religious workers into the country to act as ministers, missionaries, or teachers. Under the law, religious societies have “public corporation” status, permitting them to engage in a number of public or quasi-public activities, such as government-funded religious instruction in the school system, which is denied to confessional communities and associations. The government provides religious societies, but not other religious groups, with financial support for teachers of religion at both public and private schools. Religious societies have significant freedom under the law to regulate their own affairs; their responsibilities include a commitment to sponsor social and cultural tasks which serve the common well-being and to ensure their teachings do not violate the law or ethical standards.
The law establishes criteria for religious groups seeking to achieve religious society status; religious groups recognized as societies prior to a 1998 law retain their status. To be recognized as a religious society, religious groups must have membership equaling 0.2 percent of the country’s population (approximately 16,400 people) and have been in existence for 20 years, at least 10 of which must have been as an organized group and five as a confessional community. Only six of the 16 recognized religious societies (Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Eastern Orthodox, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Free Christian Churches) meet this membership requirement. There is an exception for religious groups that have been active internationally for at least 100 years and active in an organized form in the country for 10 years.
The law allows religious groups not recognized as societies to seek official status as confessional communities without the financial and educational benefits available to recognized religious societies. Groups must have at least 300 members and submit their statutes describing the goals, rights, and obligations of members as well as membership regulations, officials, and financing. Groups must also submit a written version of their religious doctrine, which must differ from that of any previously recognized religious society or religious confessional community. The Ministry for Arts, Culture, the Constitution, and Media then determines whether the group’s basic beliefs violate public security, order, health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of citizens.
A confessional community recognized by the government has the juridical standing needed to engage in such activities as purchasing real estate in its own name and contracting for goods and services. A religious group seeking to obtain this status is subject to a six-month waiting period from the time of application to the ministry.
The government recognizes seven groups as confessional communities: the Bahai Faith, the Movement for Religious Renewal-Community of Christians, the Pentecostal Community of God, Seventh-day Adventists, the Hindu community, the Islamic-Shiite community, and Old-Faith Alevis.
Religious groups not qualifying for either religious society or confessional community status may apply to become legal associations. Associations have juridical standing and many of the same rights as confessional communities, such as the right to own real estate. Some groups organize as associations while applying for recognition as religious societies. The Church of Scientology, the Unification Church, and a number of smaller religious groups are organized as associations.
There are no restrictions on missionary activities. Unlike workers for religious societies, religious workers for groups recognized as confessional communities or associations must apply for a general immigrant visa that is not employment or family-based, and is subject to a quota.
The government funds religious instruction on a proportional basis in public schools and places of worship for children belonging to any of the 16 officially recognized religious societies. The government does not offer such funding to other religious groups. A minimum of three children is required to form a class. Attendance in religious instruction is mandatory for all students unless they formally withdraw at the beginning of the school year; students under the age of 14 require parental permission to withdraw from instruction. Instruction takes place either in the school or at sites organized by religious groups. Some schools offer ethics classes for students not attending religious instruction.
The curriculum for both public and private schools includes compulsory anti-bias and tolerance education as part of civics education across various subjects, including history and German language instruction. Religious education and ethics classes include the tenets of different religious groups.
The government contributes financial resources to Holocaust education efforts. Holocaust education is part of history instruction and appears in other subjects such as civics.
A strictly enforced law bans neo-Nazi activity and prohibits public denial, belittlement, approval, or justification of the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity in print, broadcast, or other media.
Under the law, prisoners are entitled to pastoral care. This is true for both religious societies and religious groups.