A combination of historical and modern constitutional documents guarantees freedom of “conscience and creed.” The law provides for the freedom of religious belief and the rights of all residents to join, participate in, leave, or abstain from any religious community. It stipulates, however, that “duties incumbent on nationals may not be impeded by religious affiliation.” The law grants registered religious societies the right to public practice and independent administration of their internal affairs.
Several constitutional provisions protect religious freedom. The main pillars are historical laws on fundamental rights and freedoms, such as the Basic Law on the General Rights of Nationals and the Law Regarding Inter-Confessional Relationships, dating from the 19th century, and treaties and conventions such as the European Convention on Human Rights, which form part of the constitution. Antidiscrimination legislation prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. Citizens have the right to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom.
The law prohibits public incitement to hostile acts against a church group, religious society, or other religious group if the incitement poses a danger to public order or if the incitement is perceivable by a broad public. In 2016, this provision will apply to incitement perceivable by “many people,” which means at least 30 persons, and also specifically to incitement in print or electronic or other media available to a broad public. The law also prohibits incitement, insult, or contempt against religious groups if such action violates human dignity.
By law registered religious groups are divided into three officially recognized legal categories (listed in descending order of status): religious societies, religious confessional communities, and associations. Each category possesses specific rights, privileges, and legal responsibilities. Members of religious groups that are not legally recognized may practice their religion at home “insofar as this practice is neither unlawful nor offends common decency.”
There are 16 officially recognized religious societies: the Catholic Church, the Protestant churches (specifically Lutheran and Presbyterian, called “Augsburg” and “Helvetic” confessions), the Islamic Faith Community, the Old Catholic Church, the Jewish Community, the Eastern Orthodox Church (Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, and Bulgarian), The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the New Apostolic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Methodist Church of Austria, the Buddhist community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Islamic-Alevi Community, and the Free Christian Churches.
Recognition as a religious society under the law includes the right to participate in the program requiring mandatory church contributions by church members and to bring religious workers into the country to act as ministers, missionaries, or teachers. Under the law, religious societies have “public corporation” status, permitting them to engage in a number of public or quasi-public activities, such as government-funded religious instruction in both public and private schools, which are denied to confessional communities and associations. Religious societies have significant freedom under the law to regulate their own affairs; their responsibilities include a commitment to sponsor social and cultural activities which serve the common well-being and to ensure their teachings do not violate the law or ethical standards.
Religious groups seeking to achieve religious society status for the first time must apply for recognition with the Office for Religious Affairs in the Federal Chancellery. Religious groups recognized as societies prior to 1998 retain their status. Fourteen of the 16 recognized religious societies have been grandfathered under this provision of the law. To be recognized as a religious society, religious groups not recognized prior to 1998 must have membership equaling 0.2 percent of the country’s population (approximately 17,400 people) and have been in existence for 20 years, at least 10 of which must have been as an organized group and five as a confessional community. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Alevi Muslims have been recognized as religious societies under these post-1998 criteria. Groups that do not meet these criteria may still apply for religious society status under an exception for groups that have been active internationally for at least 100 years and active in an organized form in the country for 10 years. Groups sharing a broad faith with an existing society or confessional community, for example Christianity, may register separately as long as they can demonstrate that their group has a different theology.
The law allows religious groups not recognized as societies to seek official status as confessional communities with the Ministry for Arts, Culture, the Constitution, and Media. A confessional community recognized by the government has the juridical standing needed to engage in such activities as purchasing real estate in its own name and contracting for goods and services, but is not eligible for the financial and educational benefits available to recognized religious societies. In order to be recognized as a confessional community, a group must have at least 300 members and submit its statutes describing the goals, rights, and obligations of members, as well as membership regulations, a list of officials, and financing information. A group must also submit a written description of its religious doctrine, which must differ from that of any previously recognized religious society or religious confessional community. The ministry determines whether the group’s basic beliefs are consistent with public security, order, health, and morals, and the rights and freedoms of citizens. A religious group seeking to obtain confessional community status is subject to a six-month waiting period from the time of application to the ministry. After this period, groups that have applied automatically receive the status unless the government issues a decree rejecting the application.
The government recognizes eight groups as confessional communities: the Bahai Faith, the Movement for Religious Renewal-Community of Christians, the Pentecostal Community of God, Seventh-day Adventists, the Hindu community, the Islamic-Shia community, the Old-Faith Alevis, and the Unification Church.
Religious groups not qualifying for either religious society or confessional community status may apply to become legal associations, a status applicable to a broad range of civil groups. According to the law, any group of more than two people pursuing a nonprofit goal qualifies to organize as an association. Groups apply to the Ministry of Interior. Associations have juridical standing and many of the same rights as confessional communities, such as the right to own real estate and contract for goods and services.
Some groups organize as associations while applying for recognition as religious societies. The Church of Scientology and a number of smaller religious groups are organized as associations.
On March 31, an update of the law governing relations between the government and Islamic institutions went into force. The revised law, drafted by the government in cooperation with the Islamic Faith Community, stipulates funding for the day-to-day operations of mosques must be derived from domestic sources, Islamic teachings and practices must not violate federal law, and Islamic institutions should “take a positive stance” toward the state and society. The revised law provides an explicit legal definition of, and legal protection for, Islamic practices, such as circumcision and preparation of food in conformity with religious rules, and states Muslims can raise children and youth in accordance with Islamic traditions. Muslim groups with at least 300 members and a theology that is not distinct from a pre-existing Islamic religious society or confessional community are organized as cultural communities and fall under the umbrella of the pre-existing, legally recognized Islamic religious society or confessional communities. The law also provides for Islamic theological university studies to start in 2016.
Separate laws govern relations between the government and each of the other 15 state-recognized religious societies. The laws have similar intent but vary in specifics, given that they were enacted at different times over a span of approximately 140 years.
Under the law, prisoners are entitled to pastoral care from religious societies.
The government funds religious instruction for children on a proportional basis in public schools, government-accredited private schools, and places of worship for any of the 16 officially recognized religious societies. The government does not offer such funding to other religious groups. A minimum of three children is required to form a class. Attendance in religious classes is mandatory for all students unless they formally withdraw at the beginning of the school year; students under the age of 14 require parental permission to withdraw from religious classes. Instructors are provided by religious groups and funded by the government. Religious instruction takes place either in the school or at sites organized by religious groups. Some schools offer ethics classes for students not attending religious instruction. Religious education and ethics classes include the tenets of different religious groups.
The curriculum for both public and private schools includes compulsory antibias and tolerance education, including religious tolerance, as part of civics education across various subjects, including history and German-language instruction.
Holocaust education is part of history instruction and appears in other subjects such as civics.
The law bans neo-Nazi activity and prohibits public denial, belittlement, approval, or justification of the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity in print, broadcast, or other media.
Foreign religious workers for groups recognized as confessional communities or associations must apply for a general immigrant visa that is not employment- or family-based, and is subject to a quota. The government requires a visa for visitors from non-visa-waiver countries or individuals who would stay beyond 90 days, including religious workers of confessional communities or associations. Foreign religious workers belonging to religious societies do not require visas either for shorter visits or stays beyond 90 days.