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Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Praises Czech President for Veto of Restrictive Religion Law

WASHINGTON – United States Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) today praised Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel for vetoing a proposed law on religion. “The veto of this legislation was the right thing to do. I hope Czech Parliamentarians will follow his lead,” said Smith.

Announcing the veto, President Havel’s spokesman reiterated concern about the law’s possible effect on church engagement in health and social services. Officials of the Catholic Church in the Czech Republic, one of the officially recognized religions in the country, also welcomed the veto.

Co-Chairman Smith added, “President Havel is rightly concerned about the law’s possible impact on traditional areas of church life. But let’s not forget that the existing registration requirements already make it difficult for some smaller religious groups to gain legal recognition in the Czech Republic. The proposed law would make their situation even more difficult.”

Under the proposed law, religious groups seeking state recognition would have to submit an application with the signatures of at least 300 people. This starts the clock on a ten-year waiting period during which recognition is not possible, regardless of the size of the religious community. Proponents of the law argue that allowing groups to submit an application with only 300 signatures constitutes a “liberalization” of the current system. Such religious groups, however, would have essentially the same status as civic organizations, but not the same rights as recognized religions.

Moreover, during the new ten-year waiting period, religious groups seeking recognition would have to submit annual reports to the government on their activities. Then, after ten years, a religious group that has met these first two requirements must submit an application for full recognition with 20,000 signatures – double the number of signatures currently required. “In reality,” suggested Smith, “religious groups desiring recognition would have to struggle with a new ten-year waiting period, intrusive reporting requirements, and overcoming the hurdle of obtaining 20,000 signatures – something only a handful of the 21 religions currently recognized could do.”

“In short, this legislation would make it more difficult – not easier – for smaller religious groups to be placed on an equal legal footing with other currently recognized groups. Registration systems that withhold benefits for smaller groups are incompatible with the Czech Republic’s OSCE commitments,” concluded Mr. Smith.

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