Recognition of paganism (or not) in Lithuania: Romuva

The ECtHR has handed down judgment in an interesting case about registering minority/new religious movements: Ancient Baltic Religious Association Romuva v Lithuania [2021] ECHR 455.

Background

Lithuanian law distinguishes between three types of religious associations: traditional religious associations, non-traditional religious associations recognised by the State, and other religious associations [4]. Any religious association may be registered and obtain legal personality, provided that it meets certain minimum criteria. All registered religious associations have the right to conduct religious services and engage in educational and charitable activities but, in addition, traditional and State‑recognised religious associations have additional privileges such as the right to provide religious education in schools, the right to perform religious marriages with legal effect, and the right to have their religious services broadcast [5]. The applicant association, Romuva, was registered as a religious association in 2002. It comprises several religious communities following the old Baltic pagan faith, one of which was officially registered in Lithuania in 1992 [14].

Romuva applied to become a State-recognised religious association and a draft text was approved by the Lithuanian Parliament – the Seimas – on 25 June 2019 [21-24]. The president of the Lithuanian [Roman Catholic] Bishops’ Conference then e-mailed the Chair of Seimas parliamentary group For the Family, who forwarded it to the other 81 members of the group [25]. The Bishops’ Conference argued that the concept of an ancient Baltic religion was misleading and without foundation, and nothing more than “superstitions and peasants’ customs, with a shade of magic” [27]. Furthermore, Romuva’s views did not constitute a comprehensive and finite set of beliefs and the only source of its teaching was a single book written by one of its founders, which was manifestly insufficient. The fact that during the national census some Lithuanians had identified themselves as being of a “Baltic faith” indicated only that they identified with certain religious aspects of neopaganism, but not necessarily with the views espoused by one of the many different pagan communities [28].

After a further debate in the Seimas, the draft resolution to approve Romuva as a State-recognised religious association was not adopted [31]. Subsequently, the Seimas Commission on Ethics and Procedures held that the statements made by one member during the debate had been false and defamatory. The Vilnius Regional Administrative Court upheld the Commission’s findings, but it ruled (not unreasonably: cf the UK Bill of Rights 1688/89) that there was no legal basis for ordering a member of the Seimas to retract statements made during a parliamentary debate [32-34].

The judgment

The Second Section ECtHR observed that the Convention was designed to rights that are practical and effective, and Article 9 rights would be “highly theoretical and illusory if the degree of discretion granted to States allowed them to interpret the notion of religious denomination so restrictively as to deprive a non-traditional and minority form of a religion of legal protection” [115]. It was not for the Court to decide whether or not a body of beliefs and related practices constituted a “religion” within the meaning of Article 9 or to express an opinion on sensitive theological debates [116]. In the present case, however, it noted that neither the Government nor the domestic authorities disputed the existence in Lithuania of multiple communities which claimed to profess “the old Baltic faith” [117]. Nor was a debate among religious scholars about Romuva’s beliefs sufficient to deny their religious nature [118] and there were no grounds to question them [119].

Maintaining true religious pluralism was vital to the survival of a democratic society [143] and where the exercise of the right to freedom of religion or of one of its aspects was subject under domestic law to a system of prior authorisation, involvement in the procedure for granting authorisation of a recognised ecclesiastical authority could not be reconciled with the State’s duty of neutrality and impartiality [144]. The State authorities had not provided a reasonable and objective justification for treating Romuva differently from other religious associations that had been in a relevantly similar situation and the members of the Seimas who had voted against the granting of State recognition had not remained neutral and impartial in exercising their regulatory powers [147].

There had been a violation of Article 14 of the Convention read in conjunction with Article 9 [149] There had also been a violation of Article 13 (Right to an effective remedy).

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Recognition of paganism (or not) in Lithuania: Romuva" in Law & Religion UK, 15 June 2021, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2021/06/15/recognition-of-paganism-or-not-in-lithuania-romuva/

1 thought on “Recognition of paganism (or not) in Lithuania: Romuva

  1. One wonders whether the state would have got away with policing separately which religious associations enjoyed which of the various privileges, rather than by designating certain of the religions as “state-recognised”, and making that designation a common gateway to all of the privileges, whether the various religions wanted them or not.

    The privileges are listed in paragraphs 62 thru 66. It isn’t obvious that any rational criteria for awarding the privileges need to be the same for all of the privileges, or that the single common criterion should be finding favour during the course of a political process that included lobbying and culminated in a vote in the legislature that couldn’t be challenged in the Supreme Court. However, it might be possible to salvage the making of some distinctions.

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