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An exemplary judgement
The Court of Strasbourg on the appeal of a married priest, teacher of religion
“An important step for the freedom of the Church”, Grégor Puppinck director of the ECLJ (European Centre for Law and Justice - www.eclj.org[>>]), thus commented on the judgement released May 15 with which the European Court of Human Rights agreed that the decision of Spanish bishops “not to renew the contract of a teacher who is a married priest and activist of the Pro-Optional Celibacy Movement comes under the principle of religious freedom, as protected by the Convention” and therefore it “does not violate art. 8” of the same Convention on the right to the respect of private and family life ed.’s note). ECLJ, international NGO for the defense of human rights, intervened in this case as intervening party (amicus curiae) and as legal representative of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference. The judgement, Puppinck points out, “reflects the the reasoning of ECLJ in its written observations of 20 October 2011”.
The case. The case (Fernandez-Martínez v. Spain - application no 56030/07), clarifies the Court of Strasbourg in a release, concerns the decision of the Spanish episcopate of refusing to renew the contract of a Catholic religion and morals teacher who was a “married priest”, father of five, after the publication of an article which made his belonging to the “Pro-Optional Celibacy Movement” public. In 1997 the Vatican authorities granted Mr Martiìnez’s application for dispensation from celibacy, specifying that anyone granted such a dispensation was barred from teaching the Catholic religion in public institutions, unless the local bishop decided otherwise. On the basis of agreements with public authorities whereby the bishop is recognised the right to designate Catholic religion and morals teacher, the Diocese of Cartagena informed the Ministry of Education of its intention not to renew Mr Fernaìndez Martinez’s contract for the 1997/98 school year, which the Ministry notified to Martinez.
“Strictly religious” nature. Martiìnez appealed first to the Murcia employment tribunal, to the High Court of Justice and the Constitutional Court and then lodged an appeal to the Court of Strasbourg. Relying on Article 8 of the Convention, - is written in the note - Mr Martiìnez alleged that “the non-renewal of his contract because of his personal and family situation had infringed his right to respect for his private and family life”. Moreover, the question arising in the case was whether the State was required to give precedence to Mr Martiìnez’s right under Article 8 (right to respect for private life) over the rights of the Church under Articles 9 (right to freedom of religion) and 11 (freedom of association). The Court observed that under Spanish law, “the concept of autonomy of religious communities was accompanied by the principle of State religious neutrality, which prevented the State” from expressing a position “on matters such as celibacy for priests”, although the applicant “was employed by the State”. Moreover according to Mr. Puppinck, “the Court also underlined the “special confidence link” which must unite a Catholic religion teacher with the Catholic Church. Because of the “special nature” of his position and his personal situation the Court judged that “the applicant was submitted to an increased obligation of loyalty”. The religious authorities, in refusing to renew the agreement, “simply fulfilled their obligations in accordance with the principle of religious autonomy”. The Court found that there had been “no violation of Article 8”.
An important step for the freedom of the Church in Europe. Morover, Puppick continued, “the applicant wanted the Court to arbitrate” a conflict deriving from “the relations between two bodies such as the Catholic Church and the State”. For the jurist “with prudence and self-restraint”, the Court recognised the “incompetence” of human rights to rule on the cogency of a strictly religious decision”, and pointed out that its role “should be limited to verifying that the fundamental principles of the domestic legal order or the dignity of the applicant have not been infringed”. The judgement in Strasbourg, Puppinck said, “also questions the conformity with the Convention of several recent judgments of Spanish courts in favour of religion teachers whose way of life does not concord with the religion they teach and should testify through their lives”. This judgment “constitutes an important step for the recognition and respect for the freedom of the Church in Europe, within and facing the civil society”. Under the Convention this Chamber judgment is not final. During the three-month period following its delivery, any party may request that the case be referred to the Grand Chamber of the Court. In that event, the Grand Chamber will hear the case and deliver a final judgment. If the referral request is refused, the Chamber judgment will become final on that day.