The Words of the Colvin Family

New Austrian Legislation Creates Formula for Discrimination

Alex Colvin
November 1998

The Austrian Parliament has given that nation the dubious distinction of having one of the most discriminatory laws concerning religious communities in Western Europe.

In order to understand the law and its impact, it is helpful to know Austria's three tiered religious structure. At the top are the "state recognized religions" which enjoy tax exemption, receive government funding and free air time in the media. State recognized religions also are permitted to teach religion in public schools and provide chaplains in the military.

On the next step down the ladder are religious communities accorded "legal recognition." Such legal status allows these groups to have a bank account, own property, and obtain visas for foreign missionaries, teachers, and pastors.

On the bottom are religious communities who are accorded no legal recognition and have no legal rights.

The new law, which was passed December 10, impacts all of these categories. Prior to its passage, Austria had twelve "state recognized religions:" the Catholic Church, the Protestant Church of Augsburgian and of Helvetian Confession, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Old Catholic Church, the Methodist Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the New Apostolic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Israeli Religious Society, the Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), the Islamic Religious Society, and the Buddhist Religious Society.

Under the new law, which requires that a state recognized church have at least 16,000 members (0.2 percent of the population), eight of these groups may lose their status. The law states that in order to be a state recognized religion, a "religious association must have existed for at least 20 years in Austria, including a minimum of ten years as a religious community legally recognized by the government."

To become legally recognized (the second tier), a community must have at least 300 members and must wait six months after filing its application. In contrast, the waiting period for non-religious groups is only 6 weeks, and political parties are accorded legal status upon receipt of their statutes. Legal status may be denied to religious communities by the Federal Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs if it deems that youth will be adversely affected by it, that psychological methods are used improperly to disseminate religious beliefs, or in the interest of public security, public order, health, or morality.

This move by Austria is the latest in a series of developments by several Western European governments to control the growth of minority religions. In effect the policy emerging in these nations is that the government will support a handful of majority "traditional religions." States will tolerate the presence of others that it deems to be respectable or "safe," and will suppress or discourage the growth or presence of new or unpopular religious movements that it labels as "dangerous sects."

Several Western European nations, including Germany, France, Belgium and Austria have established commissions for the study of "dangerous sects." Listed groups include Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, Hasidic Jews, Buddhists, and the YWCA, as well as newer religious movements. These governments have decided to take upon themselves the responsibility to decide which religions are authentic and which are not, as well as determining which means of communicating religious teachings are acceptable and which are "psycho-logical." In making these determinations, the governments are relying increasingly upon the advice of psychiatrists and anti-sect lawyers.

Both the Austrian law and the general trend toward control of religious minorities are in direct contradiction to Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights which affirms the right of individual citizens to freely choose their religious belief and practice for themselves.

Secularists and statists generally defend their increasing supervision of religious belief by pointing to extreme examples such as the suicides of the Solar Temple or Heaven's Gate. In the wake of these incidents, the media has too often responded by categorizing all new religious movements as "dangerous sects," publishing sensationalized reports from disgruntled family members and quoting as "experts" people of dubious scientific credibility who often make their livelihood opposing new religious movements.

Unfortunately, members of majority religions, concerned about declining church membership, all too often go along with the move to restrict the growth of new religious movements.

While several other Western European nations have been considering what actions to take to curb the growth of new religious movements, Austria is the first to make such a policy official. The law was sponsored and passed by the ruling coalition of the Socialist and the People's Party over the opposition of the Green, Liberal, and Freedom Parties.

A spokesperson for the Liberal Forum on Constitutional Issues in Austria, Volker Kier, criticized the "spirit of inquisition and intolerance," which the law represented. Heinz Mayer, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Vienna, stated that the legislation "is discriminatory and deliberately intends to avoid the implementation of constitutional principles to religious association and to prevent at any cost the recognition of religious societies for at least ten years."

Religious freedom is a fundamental human right. It is troubling that Austria is now taking a leading role in opposition to religious freedom. Indeed, it should be hoped that the nations of Western Europe would take the lead in promoting freedom, tolerance and human rights as an example to the rest of the world.

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