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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

German Catholic Church can fire employees for not living by Catholic rules

A German court has reaffirmed the principle that Catholic institutions can fire employees for breaking church laws, such as marriage vows. These laws, however, must be applied fairly through a transparent process.

Catholic-affiliated institutions have the right — in principle — to fire employees for breaking church rules regarding marriage, according to a judgment issued by the Federal Labour Court in Erfurt on Thursday.

The ruling came after a Catholic hospital in the west German city ofDüsseldorffired a doctor for marrying a second time. In that specific case, however, the labour court made an exception and ordered that the doctor be reinstated. In their ruling, the judges said the doctor’s firing was illegitimate because the hospital had issued equal work contracts to Catholic and Protestant employees but did not fire Protestants for cases of divorce and remarriage. The hospital also failed to issue a warning to the doctor after it learned he was living with his partner outside of marriage, according to the court.

The judges said that the hospital weakened its case by not disciplining the doctor when he was cohabitating and by not enforcing similar rules on non-Catholic employees.

We are advised that churches inGermanyare allowed to use their own rules for hiring and firing according to principles enshrined in the country’s Basic Law, equivalent to a constitution. Although we would have expected this to conflict with the EU Employment Directive ratified in 2000, the secular courts are apparently not allowed to decide whether or not Catholic Church principles are legitimate, only if they are applied fairly and not arbitrarily.

The ruling comes a year after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a Catholic church inEssenhad to reinstate an organist who started a relationship with a woman after separating from his wife, arguing that signing a work contract did not give the employer control over a person’s life.

German courts have ignored the ruling, arguing that the ECHR rulings only apply to German cases filed since 2006.

The near impunity of the German churches to employment law is especially serious given the 2½ million (sic) employees they have in faith-based welfare. This well researched exposé makes chilling reading – the bottom section focuses on employment law exemptions. It concludes that the: “‘church clause’ appears to have secured for religious institutions their right to continue to largely regulate their own employees, for instance by denying them collective bargaining and compelling them, in the case of church membership and remarriage, to lead their private lives according to church norms”.

Published Fri, 16 Sep 2011