Should the Hungarian State Support Churches…at all? (event archive)

September 21, 2011 by  

At our Liberty Forum, three distinguished Hungarian academics Péter Hack (ELTE – School of Law), Renáta Uitz (Central European University), Orsolya Salát (ELTE – School of Law) shared their views about the role of the state in religious affairs at our public panel, moderated by CSS president Marion Smith.
(Scroll down for event summary!)

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When it comes to freedom of religion, the personal backgrounds of lawmakers matter more than it would seem at first sight. The American Founding Father’s insistence on religious freedom at the federal level (i.e. not having established national churches) was affirmed by their negative experiences concerning established churches at the state level and also by their memories of religious persecution in the Old Continent.

It was highlighted that when it comes to state support for religion, it is important to distinguish between the different roles that churches fulfill. Some, on the panel argued that state support for theological activities is wrong, but in cases that purportedly advance the greater social good like establishing schools and hospitals, subsidies and/or tax breaks might be justified. At the practical level, when the state offers tax breaks and financial subsidies for religious entities, there are invariably groups that attempt to play the system. This has been the case in Hungary and there have been many examples in the past 20 years when so-called “churches” receive state subsidies even though they engage in very little religious activity.

When the state does support certain social projects (schools, hospitals, etc.) carried out by churches, a number of important questions arise: Can state subsidized church-run schools discriminate among prospective students based on their religious affiliation? Are such schools allowed to select their pupils on the basis of their religious tenets? If yes, is such discrimination compatible with state support?

One must also look at the rationale for state support from the point of view of the churches themselves. Even though subsidies and tax breaks facilitate the financial operation of churches (especially in light of the diminishing number of regular churchgoers in Europe), does it actually hinder the healthy development and organic growth of churches? If believers know that their churches will be supported by the state anyway, why would they contribute with their own tithes, offerings, and donations?

Despite philosophical and practical objections to state involvement, there is much support for established churches that lost much of their property during Communism. In this case, Hungary’s recent religion law is viewed by some to be simply restoring the status quo before Communism. But, as was pointed out from the audience, few people realize that these church properties were originally acquired under unfair circumstances in the past, according to 19th century law that favored certain churches and religions over others. While there is much clout and general respect for “established churches” in Hungary, and while there is much condemnation for Communist suppression of religion, the questions remain: are past grievances legitimate grounds for a prolonged future of state favoritism? And are the risks to freedom of religion too great? These questions were not resolved at the event, but the discussion did serve to highlight fundamental aspects of religion in society beyond the policy considerations often heard in the Hungarian media.

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