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The legal status of churches and religious communities

Churches and faith communities differ in their methods of registration, but all legally registered organizations enjoy the same rights:

1) Fifteen of them operate under a special law which governs the relations between the state and a church or a given religious community.

This group includes all large – as well as the oldest - religious communities (except for Jehovah’s witnesses who, despite being the third largest community, do not operate on the basis of a special law, but on the basis of the law of 1989). The churches and religious communities belonging to this group are listed below, in chronological order of the legal act:

- Orthodox Old believers Church in Poland (by order of the President of the Republic on 22 March 1928)
- The Islamic religious community (21 April 1936)
- The Karaite religious community (21 April 1936)
- The Catholic Church (17 May 1989)
- The Polish Autocephalous Orthodox Church (4 July 1991)
- The Church of the Confession of Augsburg in the Republic of Poland (Lutheran Church) (13 May 1994)
- The Protestant Reformed Church (13 May 1994)
- The Protestant Methodist Church (30 June 1995)
- The Church of Christian Baptists (30 June 1995)
- The Church of Seventh Day Adventists (30 June 1995)
- The Polish Catholic Church (30 June 1995)
- The Union of Jewish Religious Communities (20 February 1997)
- The Catholic Church of the Mariavites (20 February 1997)
- The Old Catholic Church of the Mariavites (20 February 1997)
- The Pentecostal Church (20 February 1997)

The various denominational entities enjoy legal personality under the aforementioned laws. As to the Catholic Church, the Concordat explicitly recognized the legal personality of entities that have acquired this status under canon law. In rare cases, legal personality is granted by order of the Minister of the Interior and Administration: these cases include the Catholic Caritas Foundation, the Protestant Diakonia or the broadcaster Orthodoxia.

2) Approximately 150 other groups function on the basis of the 1989 law guaranteeing freedom of conscience and religion, which has established a general framework for all churches and religious communities in Poland.

Since 1998, it has been possible for a group of at least 100 Polish citizens with full legal capacity to apply for registration of a church or religious community. In the first version of the 1989 law, the minimum number of members amounted to 15, which led to some abuse, particularly with regard to exemption from military service, tax advantages and duty-free imports.

The Minister of the Interior and Administration is responsible for registering religious communities. In accordance with the 1989 law and the order of 31 March 1999 on the registration of churches and religious communities, the application must contain the following elements: a list of members, information on the general objectives, the principles of doctrine and ritual practice, the headquarters, any subordinate bodies and the statutes.

Since 1989, about 158 churches and religious communities have been registered; 48 applications have been rejected, with the request being turned down on several occasions due to formal criteria. The criteria are equivalent to those of Article 9(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights and the minister checks, inter alia, if the objectives and dogmata of a church or religious community are likely to endanger public order or security, or contravene the right to life, morality or the rights of parents. To take one example: the Raëlians, who in 2002 were the first to claim that a human being had been cloned, have not been listed in the Polish registry since 1998. The minister’s refusal was confirmed by the main administrative court (Naczelny Sąd Administracyjny) in its decision of 22 January 1999.

D 28 September 2012    AMichal Rynkowski

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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