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Germany

Court Decision: State Labor Laws In Germany Don’t Apply To Church Employees

Church employees cannot turn to state courts in matters concerning job loss or demotion, and the European Court for Human Rights may be turned to only in extreme cases.

Thomaskirsche in Leipzig, Germany (vxla)
Thomaskirsche in Leipzig, Germany (vxla)
Wolfgang Janisch

MUNICH - Labor disputes and the Lord have some new legal guidance in Germany. Protestant ministers and other church employees will have to continue relying on legal entities of the church if they are fired or placed on administrative leave, entailing loss of income, according to a new ruling by the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg. Only exceptional cases may be brought before state courts.

The plaintiffs in the case in question were two ministers, one from Böblingen and the other from Moers, Germany, as well as two officers in the German Salvation Army. After parish conflicts, the ministers had been placed on leave, and the Salvation Army officers had been dismissed.

According to the court decision, the terms of employment of the four plaintiffs are governed by church laws. They could of course file a complaint with a state court, which however had only limited possibilities for review of church measures. The court cited jurisprudence of the Bundesgerichtshof (BGH) in Karlsruhe, Germany's Federal Court. Only when demotion or job loss was arbitrary, offended common decency, or went against public order could civil courts get involved.

The administrative leave or "standby time" option is one used by the Evangelical Church in cases of conflict, when, as the by-laws governing ministerial services state, "a beneficial impact of a minister on their parish no longer appears to be ensured." Although no blame is apportioned to ministers in these cases, "this is a stigma for anyone it happens to," Karlsruhe lawyer Christian Kirchberg, who represented the minister from Böblingen, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Kirchberg said that church courts in case of doubt tend to decide in favor of the church, but there are opportunities for appeal.

The two ministers concerned in the Strasbourg decision conducted a long fight about the principle of access to state courts. In 1999, they failed for the first time, when the constitutional court decided against them and pointed them in the direction of the administrative courts and courts of appeal. There was cause for hope in 2003 when the German Federal Court (BGH) decided that "state courts cannot avoid a decision because the legal issue in question concerns matters of organization or jobs within the autonomous church sector."

Nevertheless, in 2004 the constitutional court dismissed a second complaint filed by the minister from Böblingen. The decision was a source of disagreement on the part of members of the court. In her dissenting opinion, constitutional judge Gertrude Lübbe-Wolff criticized the court for not coming up with fundamental clarification as to when state legal protection could apply to internal church matters.

"The Strasbourg decision closes the chapter," says lawyer Kirchberg.

Read the original article in German

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