Current Affairs Government moves to cement church restitution deal
On Friday, the Czech government moved to cement a deal on church restitutions that the opposition Social Democrats are challenging at the Constitutional Court. Prime Minister Petr Nečas and representatives of 16 churches signed bilateral agreements under which the state will pay them financial compensation to the tune of 59 billion crowns over a period of 30 years.
Friday’s ceremony at the Office of the Government has put a final seal on a hard-won agreement that was 20 years in the making. According to the church restitution law, approved by the lower house and signed into law by the president late last year, the country’s churches will receive 75 billion crowns worth of land and property confiscated by the communist regime and get 59 billion crowns worth of compensation money for the rest, to be paid by the state over a period of 30 years. In addition to righting the wrongs of the past, the agreement will enable churches active in the Czech Republic to gain full independence from the state by 2030.
The signing of individual agreements between the government and 16 of the country’s churches on Friday was more than just a formality, naturally ensuing from the approved law. The country’s three opposition parties are vehemently opposed to the deal and have made a last-ditch attempt to get the law abolished by the Constitutional Court. Legal experts say the signed agreements will remain valid, even if the Constitutional Court abolishes the church restitution law. Jan Kysela, an expert on constitutional law, explains:
“A negative verdict from the court regarding the restitution law could prevent the government from signing such agreements, but if the agreements have already been signed then there is really not much you can do unless you find grounds on which to challenge the validity of the laws.”
The opposition Social Democrats, who this week lodged a complaint against the restitution law with the Constitutional Court are outraged by the move. The speaker of the left-dominated Senate, Milan Štěch, accused the government of making a pre-emptive strike against a possible negative verdict by the court.
“This is clearly an attempt to by-pass one of the pillars of the state – in this case the judiciary power of the Constitutional Court.”
Just hours ahead of the signing ceremony the Social Democrats appealed to the constitutional court to issue a preliminary ruling which would halt the signing of the agreements. However, the court was unable to meet at such short notice and merely issued a statement saying it would be politically correct for the government to await its verdict on the restitution bill. At the same time it confirmed that legally nothing stood in the government’s way.
The government has defended its decision, countering that churches had waited long enough for a settlement, and arguing that in an earlier ruling the Constitutional Court itself had called for the restitution process to be concluded as soon as possible, in order to avert a possible suit in a European court of law.
Today’s settlement with 16 Czech churches will doubtless be seen as a significant milestone in their modern history. However, the twists and turns accompanying the restitution process speak volumes about the position of churches in present-day Czech society – as did the fact that not a single church representative was present at a government press briefing following the signing ceremony.