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Change in the legal status of religious denominations

  • February 2019: Change in the legal status of religious denominations

Instead of the two existing legal categories (religious association – recognized church), due to the amendment of the 2011 Church Act of April 2019, there will be four categories provided for religious communities in Hungary.

The base level entity will remain the religious association (vallási egyesület), a legal person enjoying full autonomy. A novelty of the amendment is that religious associations will also have the right to receive tax assignments from income tax payers. This way, they will enjoy a kind of public subsidy beyond tax exemption. The law also provides for the possibility of an agreement between the State and a religious association for further subsidies and the support of activities intended for public benefit (like education, health care etc.).

A religious association can be upgraded into a registered church (nyilvátartásba vett egyház) after three years, if during the three preceding years at least 1,000 taxpayers in average have assigned 1% of their income tax to the association, and they have been functioning as a religious association for at least five years in Hungary or a hundred years abroad. Smaller religious associations can become registered churches if they declare having no intention to receive extra public funding beyond the tax assignment system. For further subsidies, the State can also establish a contractual relation with registered churches.

A slightly higher status would be that of the incorporated churches (bejegyzett egyház). A religious association can become an incorporated church if during the previous five years, in average at least 4,000 taxpayers have assigned 1% of their income tax to the association, and they have been functioning as a religious association for at least 20 years in Hungary or 100 years abroad or have been a registered church for at least 15 years. Religious associations with at least 10,000 registered members can also become incorporated churches after 20 years if they declare that they will not run for further public subsidies. Beyond the possibility of agreements between an incorporated church and the State for activities for public benefit, incorporated churches also take part in the tax assignment system and receive an additional subsidy that supplements the tax assignments, distributing the relevant share of the tax not covered by assignments (1% of the income tax is distributed between churches – the relevant share of those who do not make use of their right to assign 1% of their tax is distributed according to the proportion established by those who did assign this 1% of their tax).

Religious associations, registered and incorporated churches are registered at the Budapest Metropolitan Court.

The highest status provided for religious entities remains that of recognized churches (bevett egyház). When the State enters into a comprehensive cooperation agreement with an incorporated church, this grants the church recognition. Such agreements are promulgated by special acts of Parliament. Recognized churches enjoy a wide range of special rights and public support, including the public funding of their institutions of public benefit (like schools, hospitals, etc.).

Registered, incorporated and recognized churches, as well as their internal entities, are ecclesiastical legal persons. All ecclesiastical legal persons have the right to provide religious education in public schools and to receive public funding for such education.

Opening the tax assignment system to non-recognized churches is the consequence of a Constitutional Court decision (17/2017. [VII. 18.] AB) that stated that, whereas distinctions between various types of religious communities can be legitimate under the Constitution, there can be no difference between private individuals. Institutional subsidies may be different (for example the public support for the reconstruction of architectural heritage) but at the level of the individual believer or taxpayer, such differences would be discriminative.

The legislator has established a highly complex system for providing an adequate status for various communities. The amendment granted some additional rights to all communities (e.g. the tax assignment system). Interim steps between religious associations and recognized churches could be appealing for some communities (providing additional funding, religious education at public schools, and eventually a higher social prestige). Whereas religious associations have a right to be upgraded and registered as incorporated church if they meet the criteria, the decision to become a recognized church remains a discretionary decision of the Parliament: both the State and the church have to be willing to cooperate for the public good.

26 February 2019