Friday 15 October 1999
RUSSIAN CONSTITUTIONAL COURT TO HEAR CHALLENGES TO THE 1997
LAW ON RELIGION

by Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service

Two challenges to the 1997 Russian law on religion relating to the
Glorification ('Proslavleniye') Pentecostal Church in the south-western Siberian
republic of Khakassia and the Jehovah's Witnesses community in the city of
Yaroslavl will be heard by the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation
on 21 October. A spokesman at the office of VALERY ZORKIN, the judge
dealing with the case, told Keston that the claims 'concern the nonconstitutional
nature of Article 27 Point 3.' The first claim will be presented by lawyer and
director of the Slavic Justice Centre ANATOLI PCHELINTSEV and lawyer
GALINA KRYLOVA, the second by lawyer ARTUR LEONTYEV.

According to Keston's sources, the court's decision is likely to leave intact the
1997 law's controversial distinction between so-called 'religious organisations'
and so-called 'religious groups', under which the latter have sharply limited
rights. Lawyer Pchelintsev's main aim is to protect not independent or
unregistered congregations, but those which join 'centralised religious
organisations' such as the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists.

Article 27 Point 3 severely limits the rights of religious organisations which 'do
not possess a document proving their existence on the corresponding territory
over the course of at least 15 years', that is, before the advent of perestroika.
The claims from the two religious organisations cited, both of whom were
refused registration under this point, were formally submitted over a year ago,
since which time both organisations have reregistered successfully having
joined centralised religious organisations.

According to SERGEI VASILYEV at the Jehovah's Witnesses' Administrative
Centre in St Petersburg, 'we submitted our complaint about Article 27 Point 3
as our community in Yaroslavl was refused registration under it. The issue has
already been resolved, but the principle is still important as the article violates
the rights of believers. For many "new" organisations it is a serious restriction.
We believe that the law should either be radically amended or repealed
altogether. We are currently looking at Article 14 [which concerns grounds for
liquidating a religious organisation or banning its activities]. The drawn-out
court case against our Moscow community is due to this article - its vagueness
is being made use of. If instances arise in which Article 14 is applied, we will
question its existence. If articles thus begin to give way here and there, maybe
the whole law will collapse.'

However, the lawyers are more pessimistic. According to Artur Leontyev, 'the
Constitutional Court has such restricted powers - it is a strange organ for the
resolution of political issues. In order to challenge a law within it the law in
question has to have been applied by a law enforcement agency, for example,
the public prosecutor or a department of the Ministry of Justice. But surely one
should not have to wait for the guillotine to fall before raising an objection.
That destroys the whole point. The court's function should be to prove the
unlawful nature of the law.'

There are also concerns about information from within the court. According to
one informed source, 'the judge's intention is to reject the challenges, citing that
the organisations concerned have already reregistered and that the given article
does not refer to organisations within centralised religious organisations. This
can be deduced from inquiries made by the judge, from which it is clear what
scheme he has chosen.'

This view is also supported by lawyer Anatoli Pchelintsev. On 12 October he
told Keston: 'I think the court will reject the claims. However, they must give
their grounds for this decision and indicate that Article 27 Point 3 does not
extend to religious organisations belonging to centralised ones. Our main aim
is not to strike down Point 3, but to show that those entering centralised
religious organisations do not need the 15-year period.'

It would also suit the lawyer for the Jehovah's Witnesses if the judge were to
give such an explanation, 'as our community in Yaroslavl, like all Jehovah's
Witnesses communities, is part of a centralised organisation. Our maximum
aim is to strike down this point in the law, our supermaximum aim would be to
strike down all unconstitutional articles within it.'

Lawyer Galina Krylova is also pessimistic about her chances, as in her view the
majority of religious organisations have already resolved their problems in
connection with the law. She has higher hopes for a challenge she has
submitted for the Russian branch of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) which
was acknowledged on 30 August 1999. Keston has already reported how, on
the basis of several points in the 1997 law on religion, registration was refused
this well-known Roman Catholic monastic order. (See KNS 20 April 1999,
'Russian Ministry of Justice Rejects Jesuits' Bid for Registration' ) This is a far
more weighty claim, and, according to Krylova, 'there is no way that it will be
heard along with the other two as the court would then have to review the
whole essence of the law.'

A spokesman at the press office attached to the Constitutional Court told
Keston: 'These two claims were combined as they were both submitted some
time ago and have undergone a three-month provisional review. If a similar
claim were to have been submitted more recently, it would not have been
included, as there is an official procedure which has to be followed.' LEV
LEVINSON, assistant to Duma deputy VALERI BORSHCHEV, believes that
the Jesuits' challenge 'will be heard around two years from now. According to
our latest information it will be considered separately, the official reason being
that it was submitted much later than the other two. There is a rule that, having
looked at a law once, the Constitutional Court cannot consider it again soon
afterwards, although the Jesuits' challenge has a more solid basis, as it is
obvious that they will never join a centralised organisation.' (END)

All Keston News Service material is protected by copyright:
(c) Keston Institute 1999