In Colorado, a woman is suing Colorado Christian University for her dismissal after she decided to live with a boyfriend. In North Carolina, a music minister was fired from St. Gabriel Parish for making plans to marry his boyfriend. And in Indiana, a non-Catholic teacher was fired from the diocese for violating church teaching.
While such disputes in the United States have varying results, the European Court of Human Rights has set a standard for the continent that gives much weight to the rules adopted by church leaders.
The ruling has been highlighted by the European Center for Law and Justice, which submitted briefs in the case Fernandez-Martinez v. Espagne.
The court ruled 6-1 that religion teachers in state schools can be dismissed if they fail to follow church teachings, because they are under a contract that gives local bishops the authority to withdraw authorization for the teachers to provide instruction to students.
According to Grégor Puppinck, director of the ECLJ, the case arose from a decision by a Catholic bishop to refuse to allow the renewal of a teaching contract for an instructor responsible for teaching Catholic religion and morals in a public school.
The teacher, a “married priest” and father of five, was outed after the publication of an article about the movement “Pro-Optional Celibacy Movement,” Puppinck reported.
In Spain, religion teachers in state schools are contractual employees of the state, appointed on proposal and with prior approval of the local bishop. The married priest’s reappointment simply was not approved by the bishop.
The argument revolved around the disputing rights – the employee’s private life and the church’s oversight of his contract.
“This question is of crucial importance because in fact it concerns a conflict of values between Catholicism and part of contemporary Western culture, as well as the organization of relations between two societies, church and state,” Puppinck reported.
“Basically, the applicant wanted the European Court … to arbitrate this conflict,” he reported. “With prudence and self-restraint, the court recognized the incompetence of human rights [courts] to rule on the cogency of a strictly religious decision.”
He said the court’s ruling followed the arguments the ECLJ had suggested, determining “the requirements of the principles of religious freedom and neutrality prevent[the court] from going further in the assessment of the necessity and proportionality of the decision not to renew.”
The conclusion was based on the fact that “the circumstances which motivated this refusal to renew were of ‘a strictly religious nature.’”
In this case, the ruling means, “National judges cannot rule on such a decision of the church without violating the principles of religious freedom and neutrality.”
Additionally, the decision underlined a special link between a church and a teacher of its doctrine.
The ruling confirmed “the applicant was submitted to an increased obligation of loyalty” because of that relationship.
Church authorities who dismissed an errant teacher of doctrine “simply fulfilled their obligations in according with the principle of religious autonomy.”
Puppinck’s report said, “One must … rejoice that the human rights system finds its own voluntary restraint in itself, in the respect for religious freedom, when confronted with the system of values of the Catholic religion. 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.”
The ECLJ is an international non-governmental organization that promotes and protects human rights in Europe and worldwide. It has held special Consultative Status before the United Nations since 2007.