The European Court for Human Rights ruled Thursday that the Roman Catholic Church can base its hiring and firing decisions on its beliefs and conduct policies.
The split, 9-8 decision upheld the Church’s 1997 decision not to renew the contract of Fernández Martínez, a former priest, after he opposed the doctrine of priestly celibacy. Martínez, a high school religion teacher in Spain, took the case from a local Spanish employment tribunal all the way to Europe’s highest rights court. All rejected his claim that the Church violated his rights.
The human rights court majority ruled that the religion teacher was “voluntarily” part of a group that, “for reasons of credibility,” had “a duty of loyalty towards the Catholic Church.” By voluntarily entering into the contract, he was “limiting his right to respect for his private life.” Martínez’s teaching position was also “very close” to the “Church’s proclamatory mission.” Therefore, the Church had a right to not renew his contract if he publicly opposed its doctrines.
Lawsuits over sexuality and sexual conduct policies at schools are becoming more common in the West. “If government can dictate who teaches a particular religion, then government can dictate what the content of that religion is,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which submitted third-party briefs in the case. Churches “must be able to require their teachers to show loyalty to church beliefs,” Rassbach said.
In a somewhat ironic dissent, Russian Judge Dmitry Dedov called the Catholic Church’s policy “totalitarianism,” adding that “the celibacy rule contradicts the idea of fundamental human rights and freedoms.” He did not state where he believed those human rights come from.
The European Court of Human Rights is not part of the often ultra-liberal European Union. The Council of Europe entered into the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in 1953. The Council is made up of 47 countries of the greater European and Mediterranean regions, including all 28 EU nations. But it also includes more conservative members, like Turkey.
The court has a varied past on religious liberty. Article 12 of the ECHR still mentions marriage as between a man and a woman only, and the court ruled in 2012 that gay marriage is not a “human right.” But the decision created a mixed ruling for religious institutions, leading London’s Daily Mail to denounce English officials’ promise to protect religious freedom when legalizing gay marriage as “worthless.”