Press Release

European Court of Human Rights: Religious Autonomy Trumps Right to Unionize One of the Most Important European Religion Liberty Cases in Years

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Ryan Colby 202-349-7219

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WASHINGTON, DC –   The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, the final court of appeal within the European human rights system, today made a groundbreaking decision in Sindicatul “Păstorul cel bun” v. Romania affecting the rights of religious groups in Europe. In an 11-6 ruling, the Grand Chamber held that the Romanian Orthodox Church’s right of religious autonomy trumped the right of dissident Romanian Orthodox priests to create a trade union. The proposed trade union would have been able to organize strikes against the Church.

“Church autonomy is good for the church and good for the state,” said Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel for Becket, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.  “A church is not truly autonomous—and its members not truly free to exercise their chosen faith—if bureaucrats can force the church to change its millennia-old traditions at the request of dissident factions. And a government can’t be neutral on matters of faith if it is deciding who’s in charge of a church.”

The Sindicatul case concerns a group of priests of the Romanian Orthodox Church who sought to form a trade union against the wishes of their bishops. The Romanian courts and the Romanian government found that the establishment of such a “rogue” union would violate the Church’s freedom of religion. The employees appealed to the ECHR, and the Third Section (a smaller panel of ECHR judges) found that the employees’ right to unionize trumped the Church’s beliefs about the duties of loyalty that a priest owes to his bishop.

In its ruling today overturning that decision, the Grand Chamber said that “Respect for the autonomy of religious communities … implies … the right of such communities to react, in accordance with their own rules and interests, to any dissident movements emerging within them that might pose a threat to their cohesion, image or unity. It is therefore not the task of the national authorities to act as the arbiter between religious communities and the various dissident factions that exist or may emerge within them.” The Grand Chamber went on to hold that in refusing to recognize the dissident trade union, Romania “was simply declining to become involved in the organisation and operation of the Romanian Orthodox Church, thereby observing its duty of neutrality.”

Becket’s brief argued that both European and American law recognize a strong right of religious autonomy preventing government interference with a church’s internal affairs. The brief was signed by Professor Michael W. McConnell of Stanford Law School and joined by the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, headed by Professor W. Cole Durham of the J. Reuben Clark Law School of Brigham Young University.

“True autonomy for religious organizations of all sorts is becoming even more important as Europe and America become increasingly religiously diverse,” said Professor McConnell.  “In this area, government governs better when it governs less.”

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. Becket recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”


For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at or call 202.349.7224.