Croatia violates Article 14 ECHR by Withholding Privileges from Some Religious Communities

London, 14 December 2010

On 9 December 2010, the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Savez crkava Rijec zivota and Others v Croatia (application no. 7798/08) found a violation of Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) in conjunction with Article 9 (freedom of religion) in circumstances where the Government of Croatia failed to provide an objective and reasonable justification for its less favourable treatment of some religious communities within Croatia. Importantly, the Court did not find a violation of Article 9 alone, thus underscoring the separate value of Article 14 to human rights protection under the ECHR.  

Three Reformist churches (the Applicant Churches), which had been registered as religious communities under Croatian law in 2003, had submitted requests to the Government of Croatia to grant them certain privileges, including the right to provide religious education in public schools and nurseries and the right to perform religious marriages with the effects of a civil marriage. The requests were refused on the basis that the Applicant Churches did not satisfy the historical and numerical criteria which the Government had established for assessing such requests. Other churches, however, had been entitled to enter into such agreements even thought they also did not satisfy the necessary criteria.

The European Court rejected the Croatian Government’s arguments that: (i) the claim was inadmissible given that Article 9 does not oblige States to grant to all religious communities the right to provide religious education and the right to perform legally valid religious marriages, and (ii) that the differential treatment of religious communities in Croatia was objectively and reasonably justified.

On the issue of admissibility, the Court helpfully reiterated that for Article 14 to apply, it is not necessary to demonstrate a breach of the article with which it is claimed in conjunction but simply that the facts of the case “fall within the ambit” of that article. The Court found that whilst Article 9 does not impose obligations on States “to have the effects of religious marriages recognised as equal to those of civil marriages” or “to allow religious education in public schools or nurseries”, such activities “represent manifestations of religion within the meaning of Article 9(1)”. Given that Croatia does grant such additional rights to some religious communities, the prohibition of discrimination in Article 14 applies to those additional rights. The Court held that:

“Consequently, the State, which has gone beyond its obligations under Article 9 of the Convention in creating such rights cannot, in the application of those rights, take discriminatory measures within the meaning of Article 14”.

The Court held that the different treatment had not been objectively and reasonably justified given that the Government of Croatia was not adequately able to explain how they determined which religious communities should be granted privileges on the basis of their contribution to religious and cultural diversity and the level of trust and recognition which they had gained in society. Referring to the case of Religionsgemeinschaft der Zeugen Jehovas and Others v. Austria (no. 40825/98, 31 July 2008), the Court reiterated that:

“[T]he State had a duty to remain neutral and impartial in exercising its regulatory power in the sphere of religious freedom and in its relations with different religions, denominations and beliefs”.

Applying particular scrutiny on this basis, the Court found that the difference in treatment by the Government of Croatia of the Applicant Churches compared with the other churches which had been granted privileges could not be objectively and reasonably justified and therefore represented a violation of Article 14 in conjunction with Article 9.

To read a summary of this case, please click here.