In February 2010, the Constitutional Court of the Slovak Republic rendered a long-awaited landmark decision on a complaint filed by Prosecutor General Dobroslav Trnka, who argued primarily that the present law governing the registration of churches and religious organisations in the Slovak Republic is discriminatory and unconstitutional.
In what some might view as a controversial ruling, the Constitutional Court found Trnka’s complaint unsubstantiated and as a result, the religious registration law will stay intact for the time being.
The Court’s ruling is very bad news for presently unregistered smaller churches and religious organisations, which under the present statute are required, inter alia, to have 20,000 adult members before they can be officially recognised by the Ministry of Culture.
Nothing short of a miracle would be needed for most religious groups to build a sufficiently large membership base: Only six of the eighteen religious communities presently registered were actually able to reach the aforementioned numerical criterion. The majority of the rest have fewer than 5,000 members, even though some of them have been in existence for many decades (and thus are registered, despite their smaller numbers, because they were either legally recognised before the religious registration law came into effect in 1991, or before it was amended in 2007.)
The current registration criteria, arguably the strictest among all participating states in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), has been criticised for compromising religious freedom by numerous non-registered religious groups as well as by some international observers.
Interestingly, even the most senior member and former chair of the Slovak National Council, František Mikloško, candidly admitted that a threshold of 20,000 members is “disproportionate, exaggerated and an unachievable number that was determined on the ground of expedience to prohibit additional churches from registering.”
However, it must be noted that Mikloško and many others do not believe that the registration law denies anyone freedom of religion and belief; on the contrary, they view it as an important piece of legislation under the current circumstances.
Why does it matter for churches and religious organisations to be registered in the Slovak Republic? Most importantly, by registering, they acquire legal status that gives them an institutional presence and legitimacy in society.
Many of the presently unregistered religious communities have tried to solve their dilemma of gaining legal status by registering with the Ministry of Interior as civic associations – even though the applicable law explicitly prohibits this practice – so that they will be allowed to open a bank account, or rent a facility for holding public worship services.
But there is a wide array of generous benefits specifically associated with religious, as opposed to civic registration, including the eligibility for government subsidies to cover clergy salaries, the right to operate government supported religious schools and the right of access to public schools, hospitals, prisons or military bases.
Although the registration law was ruled constitutional by the Slovak Constitutional Court and its decision has determinedly contributed to conserving the status quo, the law must be viewed as unambiguously problematic for a country which has made significant strides towards religious freedom in the last twenty years and aspires to become a flourishing democracy in the geographical heart of Europe.
Admittedly, taking into consideration its wider historical, political, and legal context, one quickly comes to realize that there is no simple resolution to the issue at hand. An important part of the solution will involve changing the current model of the direct financing of the registered churches and religious organisations, which has been in place with only minor modifications since 1949.
Let us hope that the Slovak Republic will soon find a suitable model of registering churches and religious organisations: one that is more functional and better approximates the requirements of justice.
Ondrasek, Lubomir Martin. 'On Religious Freedom in the Slovak Republic.' Religion in Eastern Europe. Volume XXIX, Number 3, August 2009, 1-9. (Available as an Adobe Acrobat *.PDF file here: http://tinyurl.com/ygg8z6a )
Trnka, Dobroslav. Návrh na Ústavný súd Slovenskej republiky, GÚs 3/08-1. Bratislava, Generálna prokuratúra Slovenskej republiky, 2008.
Ústavný súd Slovenskej republiky. Tla?ová informácia ?. 3:2010. Košice, Slovenská republika.
(c) Lubomir Martin Ondrasek is a doctoral candidate in Religious Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA, and a cofounder of Acta Sanctorum, a Chicago-based non-profit NGO that works for positive transformation in post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. With kind acknowledgments to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center.