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General overview

Religious Freedom

Religious freedom is guaranteed by Austrian law. The sources of law were created over nearly two centuries on the basis of the Edict of Tolerance of 1781. One element that is absolutely essential (...)

Religious freedom is guaranteed by Austrian law. The sources of law were created over nearly two centuries on the basis of the Edict of Tolerance of 1781. One element that is absolutely essential to the individual is the constitutional guarantee of the freedom of creed and conscience in Article 14 of the Basic Law of the State of 1867.
Article 14 as well as the Interdenominational Law of 1868, guarantee the right of each individual living in Austria to freely choose their religious affiliation, to publicly put an end to their religious affiliation and to ultimately be free to not belong to any religious community. The fundamental right to religious freedom was defined and detailed by Article 63, paragraph 2 of the 1919 State Treaty of St. Germain and by article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950, both of which were made into constitutional laws.

The notion of religious freedom encompasses the freedom of belief (right to choose one’s beliefs), the freedom of worship (right to worship), freedom of profession (right to profess one’s faith outside of worship) and the freedom of conscience.

D 20 July 2012    AWolfgang Wieshaider

Relations between the State and recognised religious communities

The Austrian legal order can be described as being neutral where religion is concerned. Any identification between the State and a religious community is therefore excluded (principle of (...)

The Austrian legal order can be described as being neutral where religion is concerned. Any identification between the State and a religious community is therefore excluded (principle of religious neutrality). The tasks and objectives of the State are exclusively focussed on the secular and earthly domains (principle of secularity).
Religious societies have guarantees that are recognised by law according to Art. 15 of State’s Basic Act on the General Rights of the Citizens of 1867 (while remaining subject to the general laws of the State): joint public religious practice, freedom to arrange and administer its internal affairs, protect its institutions, foundations and funds, establish confessional private schools and religious instruction in state schools.
For religious societies recognised by law, Article 15 of the Basic Law of the State materialises the principle of general equality, which postulates an obligation of equal treatment and prohibits discrimination (principle of parity).

The right to exclusiveness as a principle of the system of law for religious societies in Austria entitles each religious society recognised by law the exclusive right to their designation, to teach their religion and to the exclusive pastoral responsibility for their members.

In Austria, the State and religious societies are equal partners. They acknowledge their respective independence and autonomy. Their relations may be governed, in particular, by contractual agreements.

Legal recognition results in granting the status of a legal personality under public law to religious societies, which entitles them to the position of a publicly registered community (this includes legal capacity). One characteristic of theses communities lies in the accomplishment of public benefit efforts, including, aside from religious efforts, social, community and cultural efforts that are encouraged by the State as they are considered to be in the best interest of the public.

The conditions for this recognition were modified in 2011, following a request by the Federation of Evangelical Congregations to be recognised as a public law corporation. This request was rejected on the grounds that the religious community had not provided evidence of its existence in Austria over at least 20 years, as required by s. 11(1)1 of Confessional Communities Act. However, the Constitutional Court followed the arguments put forward by the Federation and annulled the provision in question (VfGH 25.9.2010, G 58/10 etc.; BGBl. I 2010/84). Lawmakers responded by passing an amendment to the law (BGBl. I 2011/78).
For a faith community to be recognised in law, it must now meet the following conditions in accordance with s. 11(1), as amended:
a) to have existed in Austria for 20 years, including 10 years with legal status and at least 5 years as a registered faith community;
b) or, in respect to its organisation and doctrine, be linked to a religious society that is active internationally and has existed for at least 100 years and been active in Austria for at least 10 years;
c) or, in respect to its organisation and doctrine, be linked to a religious society active internationally that has existed for at least 200 years;
d) and have member numbers equivalent to two per thousand of the Austrian population.
According to s. 11 (2)-(4), revenues and assets can solely be used for religious purposes, the community must have a positive attitude towards the state and relations with other religious communities should not be perturbed.
Furthermore, s. 11a on revoking recognition has been added; this must take place:

- if one of the conditions listed in s. 11 (2)-(4) is no longer met;
- if the community has had no representative bodies for over a year;
- if grounds for refusing recognition exist according to s. 5, despite a request having been made to rectify this;
- if conduct persists that is contrary to the statute, despite a request having been made to rectify this;
- if the obligations linked to recognition are not fulfilled, despite a request having been made to rectify this.

The relations between the State and religious societies were governed, with regard to the Catholic Church, by the Concordat of 1933 as well as by a certain number of other laws that govern the relations between Austria and the Holy See in a variety of domains.
Other regulations exist for the Lutheran and Reformed Church in the legal framework of 1961, the Orthodox Church in the legal framework of 1967 regarding the Orthodox Churches, Jewish Communities in the legal framework of 1890 in the legal framework of 1890 and Muslims in the legal framework of 1912.
The relations with other recognised religious societies are governed by the Act concerning the Regognition of Religious Societies of 1874 and by the 2003 legal framework regarding Eastern Orthodox Churches.

See also: POTZ Richard, "État et Églises en Autriche",in ROBBERS Gerhard (ed.), État et Églises dans l’Union européenne, 2e éd., Baden-Baden, Nomos, 2008, p. 417-448.

D 1 December 2014    AWolfgang Wieshaider

Religious confessional communities registered by the State

State law on religion developed remarkably in 1998 as a result of the Confessional Communities Act. This law ensures a more simplified way of acquiring legal personality status (special) for (...)

State law on religion developed remarkably in 1998 as a result of the Confessional Communities Act. This law ensures a more simplified way of acquiring legal personality status (special) for confessional communities. Confessional communities possessing legal personality status according to this law are entitled to be called “confessional communities recognised by the State”. After 20 years of existence – including at least ten years with a legal status and at least five years as registered confessional community – legal recognition can be granted, provided all the required conditions are met.
Although religious confessional communities registered by the State do not benefit from the above-mentioned special accommodations for religious societies, it should be underlined in this context that in Austria everyone is entitled to exercise their freedom of belief and conscience, regardless of whether a religious community is legally recognised or whether it has the status of a registered religious confessional community. All religious communities in Austria are specially protected. The denigration of religious doctrines and the disruption of religious worship are factors that constitute an offence. Places of worship as well as objects used in worship are also extremely protected under criminal law when it comes to theft and property damage.

(Source : Federal Press Service and the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, Religions Office).

D 1 December 2014    AWolfgang Wieshaider

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