Illegal dissolution of religious organisation: Bryansk-Tula Diocese v Russia

Bryansk-Tula Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Free Church v Russia [2022] ECHR 584 was about the dissolution of a diocese of the Russian Orthodox Free Church, a religious organisation registered under Russian law in 1995 in the Bryansk Region, for failure to conform to certain new requirements of domestic law [1]. In 2004 the Ministry of Justice brought an action for the dissolution of the diocese, citing its failure to secure re-registration under the new Religions Act; however, the Trubchevskiy District Court in the Bryansk Region rejected the claim, finding that the articles of incorporation complied with the Act. The Ministry did not appeal; however, when the diocese asked the Ministry about the conditions and procedure for obtaining re-registration, it replied that re‑registration was no longer possible because the time-limit for applying for it had expired on 31 December 2000 [2]. Subsequently, there were various exchanges between the diocese and the Ministry [3-4], culminating in 2012 in a new action by the Ministry for dissolution of the diocese on the grounds that it had committed “gross and repetitive breaches of the law”.In July 2012 the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ordered the diocese to be dissolved on the grounds put forward by the Ministry and in October 2012 the Appeals Panel of the Supreme Court upheld that order [5].

Before the ECtHR, the diocese complained of breaches of Articles 9 and 11 ECHR, taken on their own and in conjunction with Article 14, arguing that its dissolution had been prompted by the Russian authorities’ determination to eradicate any competition with the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church [6].

The Court held that the dissolution of the diocese amounted to an interference with its rights under Articles 9 and 11 of the Convention [8]. Though the dissolution had been ordered on the basis of section 14 of the Religions Act and, to that extent, had a legal basis, there was no need to consider whether or not the interference “pursued a legitimate aim” because, in any event, it was not “necessary in a democratic society” [10]. Any technical defects in the diocese’s documentation had been insufficient to justify the dissolution of a long-standing religious organisation:

“It constituted the most severe form of interference and cannot be regarded as proportionate to whatever legitimate aims were pursued. In addition, the national courts did not apply the relevant Convention standards in that their decision-making did not include an analysis of the impact of the applicant church’s dissolution on the fundamental rights of its parishioners” [11].

The dissolution, therefore, had not been “necessary in a democratic society” and, accordingly, there had been a violation of Article 9 interpreted in the light of Article 11 [12]. It was not necessary to rule separately on the complaint under Article 14 [13].

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Illegal dissolution of religious organisation: Bryansk-Tula Diocese v Russia" in Law & Religion UK, 6 August 2022, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2022/08/06/illegal-dissolution-of-religious-organisation-bryansk-tula-diocese-v-russia/

4 thoughts on “Illegal dissolution of religious organisation: Bryansk-Tula Diocese v Russia

  1. This has reminded me of an unanswered (and somewhat academic) question of mine. I wonder whether the legal requirement in the UK for a church with an income of £5,000 a year or more, whose objects are deemed to be charitable (for example because they all fall under the heading of advancement of religion), to register with the Charity Commission, falls foul of this ECtHR caselaw, as the thin end of the same wedge so-to-speak.

    A similar question is exercising some minds in the USA, where the equivalent of charities are taxed less advantageously than unregistered churches, and approval of doctrines of the state that are not Christian is sometimes suggested should be a condition for remaining registered.

  2. I don’t see how it could. This is about, in effect, the attempted dissolution by Russia of a diocese of a Church that the regime does not support.

    Registering a charity in England or Wales is quite a different matter: no charity with an income of £5,000 or above is going to be prevented from registering unless it is excepted from registration – in which case it can’t register, but that does not involve any legal penalty. And even then, the Charity Commission has said that it proposes to introduce voluntary registration for such charities if, for example, they need a registration number in order to access local authority grants.

    Nor can I think of any ECtHR judgment that’s immediately relevant: which one did you have in mind?

    • I am not claiming that any particular ECtHR judgment is “immediately relevant” to the philosophical question I am posing, whether the state of a liberal democracy should assume the legal power in the first place to require churches to register with a public sector body. I am, rather, observing a non-immediate relevance, if you like. A legal requirement for churches to register (in the UK as in Russia), is the thin edge of a single wedge, the prerequisite first step onto a slippery slope that leads to state sanctions, up to and (in this case) including dissolution, against churches that refuse to register. For just about everything compulsory is compulsory “or else”, in one way or another.

      That voluntary registration might be available for churches for which registration isn’t compulsory, does not miraculously make registration voluntary for churches for whom it is compulsory, who may not aspire to the benefits that state registration brings, and may wish to eschew perceived perils of state registration.

      • I think we are confusing two things here. In England & Wales, a religious organisation does not have to register with anyone in its capacity as a religious organisation; however, if it wishes to benefit from recognition as a charity, then it must register with the Charity Commission unless it is excepted from doing so.

        The counter to that might, of course, be: “but if it’s a trust all of whose objects are charitable, it will be a charity ipso facto“; however, a trust that did not want to have charitable status thrust upon it could make sure that some of its objects were non-charitable.

        But perhaps a better charity lawyer than I might have a more expert view.

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