HUNGARY: Minority Faiths Challenge 'Tax Discrimination'

by Robert Polcz, Keston News Service, 31 January 2001

Hungary's leading opposition political party and a group of minority faiths are lodging appeals to the Constitutional Court over an amendment to the tax law taking effect on 1 February allowing donors to `socially significant' religious bodies only to get tax relief on contributions. They argue that this rewards traditional faiths, excludes other faiths and denominations and might create a precedent for future discrimination.

Parliament has approved the amendment to the tax law submitted by Young Democrat (FIDESZ) deputy Szilard Sasvari, vice-president of the ruling party's parliamentary group. Under it, religious bodies that can prove they have existed for 100 years, had an organised body before 1928 or have the support of 1% of all taxpayers will be eligible to issue receipts for donations entitling the donor to gain tax relief up to a maximum of 50,000 forints (GB£ 120 / 370,- DM / US$ 180). By mid- January, 14 of approximately 130 registered religious bodies reported that they met these conditions. But as the amendment was submitted late and was thus voted on without debate, several opposition deputies question the legality and intention behind the amendment.

Many larger religious bodies are broadly sympathetic to or have remained silent about the amendment, some members considering the amendment to have been made for financial and not theological or ideological reasons. These believe that verification of the authenticity of religious bodies is justified, as some bodies were formed to solely to gain the financial support made available under the 1990 law on religion. `After the 1990 law on religion was adopted several "churches" have been registered, but a number of them are not really churches,' Tamas Kodacsy, a lecturer in the Reformed Theological Faculty of the University of Debrecen, told Keston News Service on 30 January. `An extreme example was the "Witches' Church" founded by a few lawyers to get these allowances. I do not think that all of recent 130 registered religious bodies are really religious.' Kodacsy also suggested that regulation should focus on the uses to which support received is put, rather than the easier option of regulating which bodies receive support.

However, minority faiths did not welcome the amendment. A protest launched by Peter Buda, local representative of Human Rights Without Frontiers has gained support from 13 minority bodies, including Christian charismatics, Buddhists, Reform Adventists and Independent Methodists. `We believe the criteria specified in the law cannot legitimately reflect the social role churches have,' a declaration issued by them complained. They argued that the term `socially significant' should not be defined according to `irrelevant categories', and that the law discriminates between religious bodies (See KNS 20 July 2000) and between equal citizens.

Krisztina Danka, spokesperson for ISKCON Hungary and a protest organiser, stated to Keston by telephone on 15 January that the protest goal is not financial, as none of the protesters could benefit from the new privileges. She emphasised that `although this particular discrimination is insignificant, it has the potential of being extended in the future.' She stated that more than 10 of the 13 religious bodies are likely to sign the appeal to the Constitutional Court, to be handed in by the end of January. Buda told Keston on 20 December that several other churches sympathise with the protest but have refrained from joining either for theological or political reasons.

Despite the criticism Sasvari, who has a degree in Catholic theology, insists the amendment is compatible with the law on the freedom of religion. `It is from neither perspective discriminatory,' he told Keston on 21 December, `since it extends rather than restricts privileges.' He argues that the Constitutional Court has already decided in a case related to religious services in the army that the state can differentiate between religious bodies according to their `social importance'.

However, Magda Kosane Kovacs, Socialist deputy and head of the parliamentary human rights committee, denies a direct analogy can be drawn with the `army case', maintaining that in extending privileges on a subjective basis the amendment violates the constitution. She told Keston by telephone on 15 January that she is alarmed by attempts to push through `questionable' religious policies in laws that require only a majority vote, while the amendment to the law on religious freedom (in preparation since the present coalition took office) requires a two-thirds majority in parliament. The Socialist appeal to the Constitutional Court was lodged at the end of January.

Balazs Schanda, head of the Religious Affairs Department at the Ministry of National Cultural Heritage, told Keston by telephone on 15 January that Sasvari did not consult the ministry about his amendment. He believes the criteria specified in the amendment are `arbitrary' and `require refinement'. He hopes that the amendment to the law on religion, if adopted, will settle the principles according to which the state can differentiate between religious bodies. (END)