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Court backs Spain in contract row with married with children Catholic priest

Human rights judges have given their backing to Spain’s decision not to renew the religious education teaching contract of a married with children Catholic priest.

In its 12 June Grand Chamber judgment in the case of Fernández Martínez v. Spain (application no. 56030/07), which is final, the European Court of Human Rights held, by nine votes to eight, that
there had been:

no violation of Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The case concerned the non-renewal of the contract of a married priest and father of five who taught Catholic religion and ethics, after he had been granted dispensation from celibacy and following an event at which he had publicly displayed his active commitment to a movement opposing church doctrine.

In the court’s view, it was not unreasonable for the Church to expect particular loyalty of religious education teachers, since they could be regarded as its representatives. Any divergence between the ideas to be taught and the personal beliefs of a teacher could raise a problem of credibility when that teacher actively challenged those ideas.

The court found that the Spanish courts had sufficiently taken into account all the relevant factors and had weighed up the competing interests in a detailed and comprehensive manner, within the limits imposed by the respect that was due to the autonomy of the Catholic Church.

In the light of the review by the domestic courts, the principle of the Church’s autonomy did not seem to have been invoked improperly: it could not be said that the Bishop’s decision had been insufficiently reasoned or arbitrary, or that it had been taken with an aim that was incompatible with the exercise of the Catholic Church’s autonomy, as recognised and protected under the European Convention.

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