Losing My Religion: Austria's New Religion Law in Light of International and European Standards of Religious Freedom

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

On December 10, 1997, Austria passed a new law creating a second class of religions that are not entitled to the full benefits and protections afforded traditional religions.1 Under this law, nontraditional religions are not recognized as religions, but as "Confessional Communities,"2 which may attain government recognition only if they meet stringent requirements. Specifically, religions will be recognized only if they have at least 16,000 members,3 if their teachings are not considered dangerous by the government,4 and then only after they spend ten years as a "Confessional Community."5 If a religious group has not yet applied for recognition in Austria, it must now wait twenty years before it can become a recognized religion under the new law.6

These requirements violate international and European religious freedom standards. If the law is not changed, the effects of this new "Confessional Communities" law could be broad and far-ranging. Similar laws have recently emerged in some former Eastern bloc countries.7 Restrictive legislation of this nature is particularly surprising and distressing in Austria, a nation that is the seat of many human rights institutions and that is generally thought of as having a strong commitment to human rights. The harsh new law is aimed at regulating socalled "sects" or religious minorities that may or may not enjoy a long history in the country.8

Currently, Austria officially recognizes only twelve religions.9 The twelve recognized religions enjoy many privileges and benefits that unrecognized religions do not.10 Besides the twelve recognized religions, there are twenty other religious groups that have filed for recognition.11 However, because of the new waiting period, it will be at least another ten years before groups like the Baptist church,12 the Seventh-Day Adventists,13 and the Jehovah's Witnesses14 are even considered for recognition as a religion by the Austrian government.15

This Comment examines Austria's new law and demonstrates that the government's new requirements for recognition create a significant burden that is not proportional to a legitimate state aim.16 These restrictions violate international agreements and should therefore be repealed. This Comment also identifies areas of Austrian religion law, besides the new recognition law, that probably violate these same international agreements.

Part II.A analyzes the 1997 Confessional Communities Law by examining the cultural and political history of religious freedom in Austria. Part II.B examines the legislative history of the 1997 law as well as the political and cultural pressure that produced the current law. Part II.C examines the specific provisions of the 1997 law and contains a translation of the section in the new law containing the new registration requirements.17 Part II.D sets forth five international and European documents that govern Austria's religion laws.

Part III.A analyzes and explains how the new law violates international agreements to which Austria is a party. Part III.B proposes changes to the Confessional Communities Law as well as to other areas of Austria's religion laws. Part III.C looks to the past actions of the Austrian government to predict the future impact of the new law if no changes are made to it.

II. BACKGROUND

Discussing the religious history of Austria lays a foundation necessary to analyze the current law and its future implications. This foundation will also include a discussion of the political and legislative history of the new Confessional Communities law, the specific provisions of the new law, and the international agreements to which Austria is a party.

A. The History of Religious Freedom in Austria

Austria has always been a country with one dominant religion. Currently, Austria's population is approximately seventyeight percent Catholic.ls Up until the 16th century, Austria had been predominantly Catholic for centuries. …