ESTONIA: Controversial Religion Law to Return to Parliament.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 14 September 2001

In the wake of the decision by President Lennart Meri at the end of June to veto the controversial new law on churches and congregations adopted by parliament earlier that month (see KNS 29 June 2001), an advisor to parliament’s legal committee - which is handling the law - has told Keston News Service that her committee received only one proposed amendment by the deadline of 13 September. Carina Rikart told Keston from Tallinn on 14 September that eight parliamentary deputies from a number of different parties proposed the deletion from the bill of Article 14 (Parts 3, 4 and 5), the specific article of the law that the president and many religious groups had highlighted as a violation of religious freedom. She pledged that her committee would invite religious groups to set out their concerns when the law is again considered.

‘The legal committee decided it will discuss the problems as presented by the president in October at the earliest,’ Rikart added, ‘though no date has been fixed. The legal committee sets the timetable of when the text will eventually go to parliament.’

In his statement explaining his veto, President Meri singled out for criticism Article 14 (3), which would have banned the registration of religious organisations (apart from individual communities) governed from abroad, arguing that this imposed ‘disproportionate restrictions’ on religious freedom. The same article was criticised by a range of religious faiths in Estonia, including the Russian Orthodox Church, the Adventists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Bahais, as well as the Council of Churches (which brings together eight of the major Christian denominations).

The Riigikogu, Estonia’s parliament, debated the president’s veto on 29 August, the parliamentary spokesman Iver Jarne told Keston on 13 September, and decided that the bill had to be amended, handing it over to the legal committee.

Ilmo Au, head of the religious affairs department in the interior ministry, declared that he supported the president’s veto. ‘The parliamentary legal committee consulted me in August and I told them I agreed with what the president wrote in his explanation,’ he told Keston from Tallinn on 13 September. ‘These provisions are not needed in the law.’ He said amending the law now lay in the hands of parliament. Asked whether deputies would listen to the president’s and his department’s concerns he declared with a laugh: ‘I don’t know.’ He identified three deputies, Mart Nutt, Vootele Hansen and Jaan Leppik, as having been the authors of Article 14 (3).

Rikart told Keston that there were various views within the legal committee, but added that the committee would invite different religious communities to put their views. She identified the Adventists as one group who would be invited, as they had made known their opposition to Article 14 via the Council of Churches. ‘The legal committee decided that it will definitely invite to participate at the next sitting the leaders of the Adventists and also the Council of Churches. The Jehovah´s Witnesses too informed us that they are concerned about Article 14’s provisions. The legal committee will probably meet the different religious representatives in the near future before sending the law to parliament - we cannot give the exact time because the meeting is not in the timetable right now.’

An official of the constitutional committee, who preferred not to be named, told Keston on 6 September that ‘we agreed with the president’ when he vetoed the law. The official believed that if the same text were to be adopted again the president would veto it a second time. Were that to happen, the official added, the president would then be required to initiate a constitutional review of the law by the constitutional court. ‘Personally I think the law will be changed, but I cannot rule anything out. The views of political parties are not clear - though it is not just a question of political parties. Many parties have criticised the draft through their parliamentary deputies, but I haven’t heard any parties giving an official position in favour of the current draft.’

The president’s office declined to speculate to Keston how President Meri would respond were parliament to adopt the same text for a second time. (END)