ECtHR Decides Church Autonomy Case

2012 is turning out to be a big year for church autonomy rulings across the world. The rulings don’t all cut the same way. In January, the US Supreme Court handed down a pro-autonomy decision, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC,  unanimously endorsing a constitutional “ministerial exception” to the federal employment anti-discrimination laws. In February, a section of the European Court of Human Rights handed down an anti-autonomy decision, Sindacatul “Pastoral cel Bun” v. Romania, holding that Orthodox priests could form a union over their church’s objections. Now, a section of the ECtHR has handed down a pro-autonomy decision in a case involving the employment of a laicized Catholic priest.

In Spain, public schools offer classes in Catholicism, taught by instructors approved by the local bishop. In the most recent case, a local bishop had withdrawn approval of one such instructor, a laicized priest who had taken a public stand against mandatory priestly celibacy. When the school dismissed the instructor, he brought suit under the European Convention, arguing that the dismissal violated his rights to privacy, family life, and expression. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, a section of the ECtHR ruled against him. In withdrawing approval, the section stated, the bishop had acted “in accordance with the principle of religious autonomy;” the instructor had been dismissed for purely religious reasons, and it would be inappropriate for a secular court to intrude.

It will be interesting to see whether the Grand Chamber reviews this judgment, or the judgment in the Romanian case, which Romania has already referred. The case is Fernandez Martinez v. Spain, available on the ECtHR’s website here (in French). For an interesting analysis of how this case relates to Hosanna-Tabor, check out Stijn Smet’s post on Strasbourg Observers.

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