Judges have agreed to refer to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights a complaint which pits the Catholic Church against a Spanish priest who advocates optional celibacy.
Fernández Martínez v. Spain (application no. 56030/07)
The applicant, José Antonio Fernández Martínez, is a Spanish national who was born in 1937 and lives in Cieza (Spain). He was ordained as a priest in 1961. In 1984 he applied to the Vatican for dispensation from celibacy, which was granted in 1997. He was married in a civil ceremony in 1985, and he and his wife have five children. He taught religion and ethics in a State high school from October 1991, his contract being renewed every year by the Bishop of the Diocese of Cartagena.
In November 1996 the Murcia newspaper La Verdad published an article about the “Movement for Optional Celibacy” for priests. It reported that Fernández Martínez, a member of the movement, had previously been rector of a seminary, and published a photograph of him attending a meeting of the movement, together with his wife and their five children.
The article included comments by a number of participants indicating their disagreement with the Church’s position on abortion, divorce, sexuality and contraception. On 29 September 1997 the Diocese of Cartagena informed the Ministry of Education of its intention not to renew Fernández Martínez’s contract for the 1997/98 school year.
Fernández Martínez appealed to the Murcia employment tribunal, which found that he had been discriminated against because of his civil status and his membership of the Movement for Optional Celibacy. However, at the conclusion of the proceedings the Constitutional Court highlighted at the outset the special role of teachers of religious education in Spain and found that the reasons for not renewing the applicant’s contract had been purely religious.
Relying in particular on Article 8 (right for respect to private and family life) of the Convention, Fernández Martínez complained about the non-renewal of his contract because of his personal and family situation. He complained that he had been discriminated against and maintained that the public disclosure of his status as a married priest with several children formed part of his freedom of expression.
The application was lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on 11 December 2007. The Court delivered a Chamber judgment on 15 May 2012.
The Court considered that the grounds on which Fernández Martínez had not had his contract renewed had been of a strictly religious nature. Since the competent courts had struck a fair balance between several private interests, the Court found that there had been no violation of Article 8.
On 24 September 2012 the case was referred to the Grand Chamber at the applicant’s request.