Left-wing parties push through controversial bill on churches

Photo: CTK

The ruling Social Democrats pooled their votes with the Communists in the lower house of Parliament on Tuesday to push through a controversial amendment to the law on Churches, overturning a recent veto by the Senate. Opponents to the bill say that it would seriously undermine the rights of churches and some deputies have already said they are prepared to take the matter to the Constitutional Court.

Cardinal Miloslav Vlk
The ruling Social Democrats recently said they would approve as much of their policy programme as possible before next year's general elections - with or without support from their coalition partners. On Tuesday they matched their words with actions. Disregarding the will of the two smaller coalition parties - the Christian Democrats and the Freedom Union - they pushed through the church bill, which opponents say will severely curtail the rights of churches to set up their own schools, charities and other institutions.

The Catholic Church is particularly upset about the outcome of the vote. Cardinal Miloslav Vlk:

"We feel that the Social Democrats have let us down. During talks with the prime minister and culture minister Vitezslav Jandak we were assured that this amendment was not absolutely necessary and would not be debated in Parliament. Neither of them kept their word and we are particularly sorry that they acted together with the Communists to push it through."

Photo: CTK
The fate of this bill now depends on President Klaus whose signature would turn it into law. However even if he does not use his right of veto, the Christian Democratic party is prepared to fight it and take the matter to the Constitutional Court on the grounds that the amendment violates the rights of churches guaranteed by the Constitution. According to Senator Jiri Stodulka the bill would enable the culture ministry to refuse to register or close down an existing church institution if it chose to do so. The Social Democrats counter that churches must respect the legal system in the Czech Republic and indicate that the dispute over this bill is chiefly fuelled by the Catholic Church, which has the unrealistic goal of complete independence.

The bill and the exchanges around it have inevitably worsened already tense relations between the government and the Catholic Church, which claims that fulfilling its mission in one of the most secular countries in Europe is not always easy. Should the bill end up in court - the judge who gets the case will not have an easy task. A number of studies, which the ruling Social Democrats commissioned ahead of the vote, are reported to be highly inconclusive.