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Top Hungarian court overturns disputed church law

Associated Press

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary's top court issued a ruling on Tuesday on the procedure the country should follow to decide which religions to officially recognize. But the verdict may have little practical effect because lawmakers are debating a constitutional amendment about the same issue.

Last year, legislators slashed the number of officially recognized churches —which enjoy tax-free status, can qualify for government support and may collect donations — from around 370 to 32.

Tuesday's ruling by the Constitutional Court repealed parts of that law and told Parliament to work out new rules to weed out groups that declare themselves to be churches but do not carry out religious activities, the stated purpose of the new law. The court said the current procedure is unconstitutional because the lawmakers' decisions cannot be appealed, no written justification is provided and the process lends itself to political influence.

The ruling may turn out to be just a moral victory for the hundreds of churches that lost their official status last year.

For starters, the government coalition led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party is taking steps to modify the constitution it passed in 2011. One of the proposed changes would include in the constitution — or Basic Law as it is known in Hungary — the legislature's right to decide which churches are officially recognized. In other words, it would add to the Basic Law legislation now found to be unconstitutional, therefore bypassing the ruling of the Constitutional Court.

Also, while Tuesday's court decision nominally restores the status of the hundreds of churches in Hungary that ceased to be officially recognized as such last year, the practical aspects of the ruling will likely be hard to implement.

"Many of the churches which lost their status last year have disappeared or have turned themselves into associations," said lawyer Szabolcs Hegyi of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. "The government's good will and assistance would also be needed to restore the churches' rights and that is far from being the case."

Hungary is primarily a Christian country, but under a previous law all a church had to do to be formally recognized, and to capitalize on government benefits, was to register with a judge.

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