A European court ruled this week that a church's religious freedom trumps the freedom of association by priests who want to form a trade union.

A European court ruled this week that a church's right to religious freedom trumps the freedom of association by priests who wanted to form a trade union.

The European Court of Human Rights' Grand Chamber overturned a decision by a smaller panel of ECHR judges that said the Romanian court erred in not upholding the clergy's attempt to unionize.

"In refusing to register the applicant union, the State had simply declined to become involved in the organisation and operation of the Romanian Orthodox Church, thereby observing its duty of denominational neutrality," an ECHR press release explaining why the Grand Chamber sided with the Romanian court.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, called the ruling one of the most important on European religious liberty in years.

“True autonomy for religious organizations of all sorts is becoming even more important as Europe and America become increasingly religiously diverse,” said Stanford University law professor Michael McConnell, who signed the brief. “In this area, government governs better when it governs less.”

The case concerns a union set up by 35 clergy and lay members of the Romanian Orthodox Church in 2008. The government initially approved the application, but the Dolji County Court set aside that decision after the Archdiocese of Craiova appealed and successfully argued that the government couldn't meddle in the church's affairs, which prohibited the formation of trade unions without the archbishop's consent.

The union, Pastorul cel Bun, then appealed to the ECHR arguing the Romanian national court had violated Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which guarantees the freedom of association and assembly. A seven-member chamber of the ECHR, agreed.

But on appeal, the ECHR's Grand Chamber of 17 judges ruled in favor of the church, saying that when a "religious community is at issue, Article 9 of the Convention (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) must be interpreted in the light of Article 11, which safeguards associations against unjustified State interference. ... (T)he right of believers to freedom of religion encompasses the expectation that the community will be allowed to function peacefully, free from arbitrary State intervention."

The Economist advised religious liberty advocates to temper their glee over Tuesday's ruling.

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"(L)ook closely at the verdict, and it's not all good news for advocates of the autonomy of religious bodies," the magazine's Erasmus column cautioned. "The judges did accept that in principle, at least, religious employees have entitlements under Article 11 ... which guarantees freedom of association. At the same time, they took into account the fact that Romania's church statutes do not provide for an 'absolute ban' on the formation of trade unions; and in theory at least, the would-be union could have organised itself in ways that conformed to church rules."

The ECHR released noted that the Romanian court had found that those trying to unionize didn't give any reason why they didn't follow the church's process of seeking permission from the archbishop and that those clergy and church employees who appealed were free to join existing associations within the church.

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