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German Protestant church wins religious freedom row with dismissed Catholic employee

In today’s Chamber judgment in the case Siebenhaar v. Germany (application no. 18136/02), which is not final, the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been:

No violation of Article 9 (right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights

The case concerned Ms Siebenhaar’s complaint about her dismissal from her job in a kindergarten run by a Protestant parish on the grounds of her active involvement in another religious community.

Principal facts

The applicant, Astrid Siebenhaar, is a German national who was born in 1964 and lives in Keltern (Germany). She is a Catholic and was employed from May 1997 as a childcare assistant in a day nursery run by a Protestant parish in Pforzheim and later in the management of a kindergarten run by another Protestant parish in that city. Her employment contract stated that the labour law provisions for staff of the Protestant Church were applicable, which provided in particular that employees were obliged to be loyal to the Church and that they were not allowed to be members of and work for organisations whose views or activities were in contradiction to the Church’s mandate.

Having been informed by an anonymous source of the fact that Ms Siebenhaar was a member of a religious community named the Universal Church/Brotherhood of Humanity and that she offered primary lessons in the teachings of that community, the Protestant Church held a hearing in December 1998 during which she was questioned. With the staff committee’s agreement, the Church subsequently informed Ms Siebenhaar of her dismissal without notice, which took effect as from 1 January 1999.

Ms Siebenhaar brought proceedings against her dismissal before the Pforzheim Labour Court, which rejected her claim in February 1999, arguing that she had violated her obligations of loyalty towards the Protestant Church. In the court’s view, that infringement constituted a reason for dismissal without notice under the relevant provisions of the Civil Code.

The Baden-Württemberg Labour Court partly allowed Ms Siebenhaar’s appeal, holding that the violation of her obligations of loyalty did not justify a dismissal without notice. The Federal Labour Court quashed that judgment and rejected Ms Siebenhaar’s claim, holding in particular that she had not only offered primary lessons but was also the contact person on registration forms for higher spiritual teaching courses. The Protestant Church could thus have rightly feared that her activities would influence her work in the kindergarten and put the Church’s credibility at risk. Moreover, the relatively short duration of Ms Siebenhaar’s employment with the Church had to be taken into consideration. In March 2002, the Federal Constitutional Court declined to consider Ms Siebenhaar’s constitutional complaint against that decision.

The labour courts referred to a leading judgment by the Federal Constitutional Court of 4 June 1985 concerning the lawfulness of the dismissal of Church employees after a violation of their obligations of loyalty. Following that judgment, Church employers had the right to govern their affairs in an autonomous manner, while at the same time labour courts were bound by the principles of the Church employers’ religious and moral precepts only to the extent that they did not conflict with the fundamental principles of the legal order of the State.

Complaints procedure

Ms Siebenhaar complained of her dismissal, relying in particular on Article 9.

The application was lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on 29 April 2002. The Protestant Church of Baden and the Protestant Church of Germany were given leave to intervene as third parties in the proceedings and submitted written observations.

Decision of the Court

Article 9

The Court had to examine whether the balance struck by the German labour courts, between Ms Siebenhaar’s right to freedom of religion under Article 9 on the one hand and the Convention rights of the Protestant Church on the other had given her sufficient protection against her dismissal. The Court reiterated that the autonomy of religious communities was protected against undue interference by the State under Article 9 read in the light of Article 11 (freedom of assembly and association).

By putting in place a system of labour courts and a constitutional court having jurisdiction to review the former courts’ decisions, Germany had in principle complied with its positive obligations towards litigants in the area of employment law. Ms Siebenhaar had been able to bring her case before a labour court with jurisdiction to determine whether her dismissal had been lawful under State labour law while having regard to ecclesiastical labour law. The Federal Labour Court had found that, given her active commitment to the Universal Church, she could no longer be counted on to respect her employer’s ideals.

The German labour courts had taken account of all the relevant factors and undertaken a careful and thorough balancing exercise regarding the interests involved. According to the courts’ findings, Ms Siebenhaar’s dismissal had been necessary to preserve the Church’s credibility, which outweighed her interest in keeping her job. The courts had also taken into consideration the relatively short duration of her employment. The fact that, after that thorough balancing exercise, they had given more weight to the interests of the Protestant Church than to those of Ms Siebenhaar did not itself raise an issue under the Convention.

The Court found the German labour courts’ findings reasonable. Ms Siebenhaar had been, or should have been, aware from the moment of signing her employment contract that her activities for the Universal Church were incompatible with her work for the Protestant Church.

In view of these considerations, the Court concluded that there had been no violation of Article 9.

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