After its landslide victory during the April 2010 parliamentary elections,
the coalition of Fidesz (Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége-Magyar Polgári Szövetség,
(in English, Alliance of Young Democrats-Hungarian Civic Union ) and KDNP
(Kereszténydemokrata Néppárt, Christian,( in English, Christian Democratic
People's Party) won an unprecedented two-third majority in the Hungarian
National Assembly. The new Parliament did not waste time, and between May 14,
2010 and March 2, 2012, lawmakers passed approximately 595 measures, including
157 new laws to restructure Hungary. Many of these new measures met with
fierce domestic and international concerns that democracy was being left behind.
Among these controversial laws were the Fundamental Law replacing Hungary's
Constitution and the so-called cardinal laws requiring a two-third majority of
Parliament. Other controversial laws such as the new media regulation; the
law on the status of judges and the powers of the Constitutional Court; the
statute regulating the Hungarian Central Bank, and the new law on churches
created fear of restrictions on democratic institutions in Hungary severely
curbing prior freedoms.

Act C of 2011 on the Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion,
and on Churches, Religions and Religious Communities (Law on Churches) was
enacted on July 12, 2011. According to a Huffington Post article, the new
measure granted legal recognition to only 14 of the 358 registered churches
and religious association in Hungary. Others have to reapply for legal
recognition, which require a three-third majority vote Parliament, where
the Fidesz-KDNP has a three-third of the seats. Under the new law, the
recognition of a religious organization as a church requires at least 1,000
members and either 100 years of international presence or 20 years presence
in Hungary. The 14 denomination included the Reformed, Roman Catholic,
Lutheran, and Orthodox churches, as well as Jewish congregations. The law
excluded such historic churches, in some cases with over a 100-year presence
in Hungary, as Hungary's Church of God, the Hungarian Methodist Church, the
Seventh-day Adventist Church, Jehovah's Witnesses, the local Church of
England, as well as the Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Baha'i communities.

Proponents of the Law on Churches, including some of the larger denominations,
welcome the fact that it will be more difficult to register religious
organizations as churches in Hungary. The government defends the measure
claiming that the previous, 1990 Act on Religion was too liberal. The
Financial Times (FT), quoting a government spokesman writes that the previous
law made it possible to set up so-called "business churches" and "nonsense
religions" such as the "Worshippers of the Womb" to take advantage of tax
breaks and other benefits. According to the government, some of these
churches had nothing to do with religion. The government also argues that
the law is just another effort to strengthen Hungary's economy by preventing
sham religious groups to take advantage of financial benefits available to
churches. Proponents also emphasize that the new measure does not prevent
the unrecognized religious groups from meeting, worshiping, and evangelizing.
A article said that the American Hungarian Federation (AHF)
defended the government from recent harsh and often unfair criticism. AHF
reminded that the Hungarian Constitutional Court partially annulled the
original statute in December 2011 and that legal recognition would be
extended to more denominations. The government and leaders of churches
favored by the new law also noted that a broad consultation with religious
leaders had preceded the enactment of the new law.

Opponents of the Law on Churches, according to the same FT article, including
religious and civil organizations, as well as certain European bodies and the
United States, charged that the new measure seriously restricted the
fundamental right of freedom of religion. For example, the Hungarian Civil
Liberties Union (HCLU) said that the new law discriminates against smaller
and newer denominations. According to ENInews, in a petition to Parliament
by HCLU and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, signed also by Human Rights
Without Frontiers and the Southern Baptist Convention among others, the law
is a "serious setback for religious freedom in Hungary." The article also
quotes the US based Institute on Religion and Public Policy saying that the
law "recalled "the Soviet Past" and violated "fundamental international human
rights law" and should be viewed as "a danger to all Hungarian society and a
terrible indication of the state of democracy in the country." The opponents
also countered the government's argument stating that the Law on Churches
constitutes a disproportionate answer to the alleged abuse by some religious
groups; "business churches" and other abusers of the previous system could
have been dealt with by different legal actions. Opponents also doubt that
it is the National Assembly is competent to evaluate what organizations should
be recognized as churches. The critics rebut the proponents' preliminary
consultation arguments complaining that the text passed by the National
Assembly was utterly different from the version they received before.

Opponents, including churches and private individuals, filed petitions with
the Hungarian Constitutional Court to challenge the new measure. On December
19, 2011, the Court struck down on technical grounds certain provisions of
the law that was set to become effective on January 1, 2012. Punch and reported that despite the deep concerns of US Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton
and several US congressmen expressed in separate letters to
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Parliament passed the bill again as Act CCVI of
2011. Secretary Clinton said in her letter that the new law "makes the
recognition of churches and religions difficult or even impossible, and the
fact that ... the approval of two-thirds of the parliament is necessary makes
the decision on fundamental human rights unduly political." wrote
in an article that on February 16, 2012, the plenary session of the European
Parliament adopted a resolution in which the Socialist, Liberal, the Green
groups, and the European Left/Nordic Green Left party expressed "serious
concerns" about "the exercise of democracy, the rule of law, the respect and
protection of human and social rights, the system of checks and balances,
equality and non-discrimination." The resolution expressly calls on European
Commission to guarantee that the Law on Churches respect the principle of the
freedom of conscience and that the requirement of the two-third majority
approval of the registration of churches is annulled. Parties in the European
Parliament on the other end of the political spectrum called the measure
irresponsible and premature reminding that there is an ongoing dialogue
between the European Commission and the Hungarian government on these issues.

The latest development in the saga of the Law on Churches is that on February
27, 2012, Parliament amended the law adding another 18 churches to the
previously approved 14. According to, however, after the passing
of the Law on Churches 66 churches were excluded out of about 100 religious
organizations applying for recognition. The Adventist Network reported that
these newly recognized denominations include the Hungarian Seventh-day Adventist
Church, the Methodist Church, the Pentecostal Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church,
and the Hungarian Islamic Council. John Graz, Public Affairs and Religious
Liberty director for the Adventist world church said the following: "My hope is
that the government of Hungary will continue to reassess the way it deals with
religious minorities. Religious freedom is best served when a government makes
no legal distinction between religions, and extends the same protections and
privileges to all."

Robert Almosd worked as an associate at Beach-Oswald Immigration Law Assoc. He
is now working in Budapest, Hungary and is Of Counsel.

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