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ECHR to Consider Whether it Will Review Religious Freedom Case From Russia

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has agreed to consider an application from the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice to determine if it will take a crucial religious freedom case in Russia.

It's been a lengthy process.  And, now, after two-and-a-half years, the ECHR will determine if it should take this closely-watched case.

Here's the background about this case:

Almost 20 years ago, the Biblical Centre of the Chuvash Republic was registered as a religious organization in Russia, but the fate of this religious organization has been under attack.  In 1996, the Centre opened a Bible school to train leaders for the church.  On Sundays, during regular church services, parents in the church also took turns teaching Bible lessons to children at Sunday school. But in 2007, a town prosecutor became suspicious of the religious activity and conducted inspections of the Centre's premises under the auspices of fire and safety control. After repeated inspections, the prosecutor listed several alleged violations of sanitary laws. The prosecutor complained, among many things, that the facilities are not adequate to provide students with a comfortable working space, the benches are self-made; the walls are covered with paper and difficult to clean, the windows are decorated with flower pots; and the doors to the restrooms lack appropriate locks. Moreover, the prosecutor alleged that the Centre violated the educational laws of Russia because the Centre was not licensed to operate an educational institution with its Bible school or Sunday school.  The prosecutor brought the Centre up on charges before a local court.

The Centre enlisted the help of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice (SCLJ) and maintained that as a recognized religious organization the Centre had the right to educate its followers about the faith in any form, be it preaching, discussions, seminars, or lectures.  The SCLJ argued that the Centre is not subject to educational licensing laws of Russia for its Bible school or Sunday school. The Religions Act of Russia specifically states that religious education and religious teaching of its followers are integral parts of the activities of every religious association.  Furthermore, the Centre argued that the alleged sanitary violations could not be the basis for dissolution of the organization because the sanitary standards apply only to educational facilities and the Bible school and Sunday school were not educational facilities but tools used to teach members of the faith about the faith. The SCLJ argued that the Government was giving the Russian Orthodox Church preferential treatment because it never required the Orthodox Church to obtain an educational license for its Sunday schools.

After a local court ruled against the Centre, the SCLJ appealed to various courts in Russia all the way to the Supreme Court of Chuvash Republic.  Ultimately, the Supreme Court of Chuvash Republic held without explanation that the Center's educational activities without a license amounted to a "gross and repeated violation" of the educational and religious laws.  The court ordered that the organization be dissolved. 

Now, there is new hope in this case. 

On 2 September 2010, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has accepted an application to determine if it will hear this case.  That's an important step to what has been a very lengthy process. In April 2008, the SCLJ applied to the ECHR on the grounds that the Russian Government violated the Centre's rights to freedom of religion and association, and discriminated against the Centre because of its religious domination.

The Court has requested that the Russian Government respond to the allegations in the application and several questions regarding the incidents concerning the Centre. Among these questions, the Government will have to answer whether it granted the Centre a reasonable time to correct the alleged sanitation violations, which stated that having flower boxes on the premises and not having locks on the doors violated Russian sanitation laws.  The Government will also have to address whether the forced dissolution of the Centre furthered, as the law requires, a "pressing social need" along with explaining what was the factual basis for the conclusion that the Centre had repeatedly or grossly violated Russian law to justify the dissolution of the Centre.

After the Government responds to the application, the SCLJ will have an opportunity to respond to the Government's submission and plead its case as to why the Government discriminated against the Centre and violated the Centre's basic rights to freedom of religion and association.

The case is Biblical Centre of the Chuvash Republic v. Russia.

The Slavic Centre for Law and Justice (SCLJ) is a non-governmental, non-profit organization with the principal goal of protecting religious rights and freedoms of individuals and associations in Russia.

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