Germany's Federal Constitutional Court Increases Power of the Church

Regensburg Cathedral

The Federal Constitutional Court in Germany recently declared legal the dismissal of a physician at a Catholic hospital for marrying a second time, citing the church’s right to self-determination, despite three labour courts ruling the dismissal illegal earlier. The Federal Constitutional Court’s ruling is significant because it consolidates the dictatorship practiced by churches over a considerable portion of Germany’s social infrastructure. It highlights the fact that in institutions controlled by the Catholic Church, employees’ democratic rights have a subordinate significance, by giving churches the right to inflict its moral code upon those employed by the organizations it controls. Not to mention that the decision is an outright violation of the democratic principle of separation of church and state.

A Catholic hospital, located in Dusseldorf, had employed the physician in question in January 1, 2000 as head of the department of internal medicine. At that point, he was still married to his first wife. In 2005, however, the couple separated and in between 2006 and 2008, the physician started to live with his new partner. While the managing director of the hospital was aware of the developments in the physician’s personal life since 2006, the divorce wasn’t finalized until 2008. Subsequently, many discussions took place between the physician and the hospital’s administration about the consequences of his second marriage on the continuation of his employment contract.

In March 2009, the hospital fired him, after which the physician filed unlawful dismissal charges against his former employer. Even though three labour courts ruled in the physician’s favour and ordered the hospital to reemploy him, the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe recently overturned that ruling.

Traditionally, the highest labour court in Germany presides over such cases on the basis of the relationship shared by an individual employee with the church. For instance, a priest, who is responsible for preaching on behalf of the church, would be judged by different standards as compared to another person who is not a priest. In the past, the court has also differentiated between employees of the Church and those who are employed by an institution the Church sponsors. Additionally, the Church has hired divorced chief physicians in the past but in this case, it rejected those factors, as it alone decides what considerations are relevant in which case.

This practice is valid even in the case of social institutions, and in this case, the Federal Constitutional Court completely negated the idea that other institutions can carry out the same tasks as well.

Making it clear that the court is fully conscious of the social backdrop of its decision, it said at the very beginning, “Since the 1950s, the number of church employees has grown by leaps and bounds. On the one hand, this development is caused by the socially conditioned expansion of activities carried out by the church—above all in the area of social welfare work—which demands the increasing professionalization of employees. On the other hand, it is caused by the continually decreasing number of members of holy orders and similar social institutions, which used to run numerous social and education institutions. Because of this development, the churches have unavoidably also hired many non-Christian employees or people who belong to other denominations, in order to meet the growing demand for qualified workers.”

In reality, the Church, after the state, is the second largest employer in the social sector. According to records, as many as 1.3 million people in Germany are employed by church-operated welfare and social organizations. In fact, in certain areas, the Church has a monopoly in the social sector as well. Even though hospitals, old age homes and nurseries are not directly funded by churches, they are largely or sometimes even completely sponsored by taxpayers’ money. Nevertheless, the Court believes a caretaker is supposed to be as subordinate to Christian doctrine as pastors and priests in the pulpit.

The recent decision by the Federal Constitutional Court did not mention whether institutions under the Church are permitted to determine themselves but it did say they could receive sponsorship from members as well as those who have nothing to do with the church or religion in general. While the Court did take into consideration churches’ declining authority in Germany, it still allowed them to dictate terms of employment. Judges at the Federal Constitutional Court believe churches also have the right to intervene in the private lives of their employees and fire them if they do not submit themselves to their religious doctrines.

“Service in the Christian community is the mission and task of the church and ideally includes people in all their relations of family, free time, work and society. This understanding is the foundation of the mission of the church that it shape both service and personal lifestyle, which find its expression in the obligation of loyalty,” it said.

In Germany, the relationship shared by the Church and the state is at least a few hundred years old. When the peasants’ revolt came to an end in the 16th century, the power struggle between church and state was won by the former. There has never really been a successful democratic revolution in Germany thereafter and churches have continued to exploit the working class for the benefit of the country’s wealthy population. In the case of war, the Church has also given its blessing to the military, for which of course the state has granted it a wide range of privileges.

Photo Credits: The Telegraph

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