Senate torpedoes church restitution bill

After hours of debate the opposition-controlled Senate on Wednesday rejected a controversial bill on the restitution of church property. Under the legislation the state would secure the transfer of part of the land and property seized by the communist regime in the 1950s and pay tens of billions of crowns in compensation for the rest. The bill’s opponents have questioned the scope of the restitution –amounting to 135 billion crowns -saying it is inflated and arguing that the country can ill afford such generosity at a time of tax hikes and cost cuts.

Social Democrats' campaign against the restitution of church property
Wednesday’s vote in the Senate was a forgone conclusion but the opposition Social Democrats and Communists still pulled out the heavy artillery to torpedo the restitution bill. They called it unfair to the Czech public at a time when lower and middle class groups were being impoverished by tax hikes, they argued that the Catholic Church and some 16 other churches and religious groupings were going to receive more than had been taken away, pointed out that 7 churches who were potential benefactors did not even exist before the fall of communism in 1989 and warned that the legislation could open the door to claims for property seized by the state before the communists took power in 1948. Social Democrat leader Bohuslav Sobotka defended not only the bill’s rejection by opposition senators but the fact that his party had attacked the Catholic Church in a ruthless election campaign.

“This is not some insignificant money transfer we are talking about. It entails a transfer of property to the tune of 75 billion crowns and money to be paid from state coffers to the tune of 59 billion over a period of 30 years. So it is a matter of great significance that transcends this government’s term in office. This commitment will increase the country’s debt long-term and it is our duty – as opposition politicians – to ring the alarm.”

Bohuslav Sobotka
The bill –which was rejected by 43 of the 77 senators present – will now return to the lower house where the governing coalition will have to muster enough votes to overturn the Senate’s veto. Although the prime minister is confident the government’s flagship restitution bill will win support the numbers are tight. The coalition government which originally took office with a comfortable 118 strong majority in the lower house is now down to 100 lawmakers and it will need 101 votes to overturn the veto. In July of this year the lower house passed the church restitution bill by the strength of just 93 votes. The opposition is moreover hoping that it will be harder for the coalition to push through a highly unpopular bill with the public just ahead of the regional and Senate elections. Opposition leader Bohuslav Sobotka says that whatever the outcome of the vote on September 4, the Social Democrats will not let the matter rest.

“If the coalition fails to overturn the Senate’s veto then that will open the door to fresh negotiations with Czech churches. If the veto is overturned and the bill is signed into law then the Social Democrats are prepared to challenge it. If we win the next general elections we would approach church representatives and initiate a revision with regard to the scope of compensation which we consider unreasonable.“

Politicians’ inability to reach broad consensus on the matter of church restitutions is protracting the planned process of introducing a gradual separation of church and state. The Catholic Church, which is to be the main benefactor in the restitution process, is showing growing impatience over the delays, and has even threatened to take the case to court. Equally impatient are many municipalities who cannot use the disputed property, frozen in the 1990s in anticipation of a complex church restitution deal.