(Economist) - When people believe they are ultimately working for God, do they have a right (like any other sort of worker) to organise themselves and demand fairer treatment from their earthly bosses? That is the one of the hardest questions at the interface of law and religion, because it involves a contest between two sorts of entitlement: the right of employees to band together and assert their interests, and the right of religious bodies to enforce their own rules.
An important ruling on this subject was handed down today. Not by the 28-member European Union (whose stance on religion I discussed in another recent posting - You really should read it. Big news in there.) but by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which holds sway among 47 member nations of the Council of Europe and is supposed to be a guardian of civil liberties of all kinds. The verdict concerns a dispute between Romania's Orthodox Church, to which the great majority of people in that country adhere, and a 35-strong group of priests and other religious employees who tried, in 2008, to form a trade union. To the delight of conservative religious lobby groups, today's decision (accessible here in PDF form) upheld the church's point of view and said it was "not unreasonable" to have stopped the would-be union from establishing itself.
This marks the climax of a tortuous legal tale. Attempts to register the union (whose charter envisaged using "petitions, demonstrations and strikes as a means of defending its members' interests") were initially successful; then its registration was overturned by a national court. In January 2012 the ECHR found in favour of the embryonic union; but that decision was overturned today. A majority of judges found that in refusing to register the union, the Romanian state had legitimately "declined to become involved in the organisation and operation of the Romanian Orthodox Church." Given that church rules bar the formation of any clerical association without the bishop's approval, the state was simply showing an appropriate degree of neutrality and detachment with regard to the internal workings of the church.
That will be music to the ears of all those who campaign for the right of religious bodies to set their own rules and to enjoy exemptions, for example, from equality legislation which bars discrimination on grounds of gender or sexual orientation.
But look closely at the verdict, and it's not all good news for advocates of the autonomy of religious bodies. The judges did accept that in principle, at least, religious employees have entitlements under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of association. At the same time, they took into account the fact that Romania's church statutes do not provide for an "absolute ban" on the formation of trade unions; and in theory at least, the would-be union could have organised itself in ways that conformed to church rules.
The terms of today's decision leave it entirely possible that future rulings will go in favour of clerical and religious workers who want to form a union and are for some reason prevented from doing so. That will be some consolation for Unite, the British trade union which has a small division that offers advocacy and advice for Anglican clergy, even though it could hardly call them out on strike.