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Objectives and Activities

Religionsgemeinschaft der Zeugen Jehovas and Others v Austria, 31 July 2008 [ECtHR]

Case no 40825/98

7.  The first applicant is a religious community established in Austria, and the second to fifth applicants were born in 1927, 1935, 1927 and 1930 respectively and live in Vienna ...

I.  ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLES 9 AND 11 OF THE CONVENTION

56.  The applicants complained that the refusal of the Austrian authorities to grant legal personality to the first applicant by conferring on it the status of a religious society under the Recognition Act violated their right to freedom of religion. They further submitted that the legal personality conferred on the first applicant under the Religious Communities Act was limited and insufficient for the purposes of Article 9 of the Convention. The applicants also relied on Article 11 of the Convention. ...

60.  The Court considers that the above complaints fall to be considered under Article 9 of the Convention, although in interpreting these provisions due regard to Article 11 of the Convention will be had (see Hasan and Chaush v. Bulgaria, no. 30985/96, §§ 62 and 91, ECHR 2000-XI).

...

2.  Whether the interference was prescribed by law

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71.  The Court refers to its established case-law to the effect that the terms “prescribed by law” and “in accordance with the law” in Articles 8 to 11 of the Convention not only require that the impugned measures have some basis in domestic law, but also refer to the quality of the law in question, which must be sufficiently accessible and foreseeable as to its effects, that is, formulated with sufficient precision to enable the individual – if need be with appropriate advice – to regulate his conduct (see The Sunday Times v. the United Kingdom (no. 1), judgment of 26 April 1979, Series A no. 30, p. 31, § 49; Larissis and Others v. Greece, judgment of 24 February 1998, Reports 1998-I, p. 378, § 40; Hashman and Harrup v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 25594/94, § 31, ECHR 1999-VIII; and Rotaru v. Romania [GC], no. 28341/95, § 52, ECHR 2000-V).

72.  In the present case the Court notes that Section 2 of the 1874 Recognition Act requires religious denominations to be recognised by the competent federal minister and that it is a precondition for recognition that the conditions under sections 1 and 6 are met.

73.  The Court therefore accepts that the interference in question was “prescribed by law”.

3.  Legitimate aim

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75.  The Court considers that States are entitled to verify whether a movement or association carries on, ostensibly in pursuit of religious aims, activities which are harmful to the population or to public safety (see Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia and Others, cited above, § 113).

761.  Having regard to the circumstances of the case, the Court considers that the interference complained of pursued a legitimate aim under Article 9 § 2, namely protection of public order and public safety.

4.  Necessary in a democratic society

77.  The Court notes that from 1978, when the applicants submitted the request for recognition of the first applicant as a religious society, some 20 years elapsed until legal personality was eventually conferred on the first applicant.

78.  The Court finds that such a prolonged period raises concerns under Article 9 of the Convention. In this connection the Court reiterates that the autonomous existence of religious communities is indispensable for pluralism in a democratic society and is thus an issue at the very heart of the protection which Article 9 affords (see Hasan and Chaush, cited above, § 62).

79.  Given the importance of this right, the Court considers that there is an obligation on all of the State’s authorities to keep the time during which an applicant waits for conferment of legal personality for the purposes of Article 9 of the Convention reasonably short. The Court appreciates that during the waiting period the first applicant’s lack of legal personality could to some extent have been compensated by the creation of auxiliary associations which had legal personality, and it does not appear that the public authorities interfered with any such associations. However, since the right to an autonomous existence is at the very heart of the guarantees in Article 9 these circumstances cannot make up for the prolonged failure to grant legal personality to the first applicant.

Since the Government have not relied on any “relevant” and “sufficient” reasons justifying this failure, the above measure went beyond what would have amounted to a “necessary” restriction on the applicants’ freedom of religion.

80.  It follows that there has been a violation of Article 9 of the Convention.

 

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