MARCH 24, 2017
On September 8, 2016, the Ukraine Constitutional Court upheld the right to peaceful assembly without interference from government officials. The Court invalidated part of the 1991 Law of Ukraine on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations (Religion Law), which requires religious organizations to obtain State “permission” to hold a religious meeting in rented facilities. The Constitutional Court ruled that this restriction violates the country’s constitutional guarantees of freedom of peaceful assembly. The ruling was welcomed by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine, who had experienced difficulties in renting buildings to hold religious services.
Officials Refuse Permission to Hold Religious Services
Since the Religion Law was enacted, biased officials have invoked the law at their whim to justify canceling rental contracts negotiated by the Witnesses for the use of buildings for religious services. One incident occurred in the summer of 2012 when thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses in northeastern Ukraine were anticipating a three-day religious convention in the city of Sumy. The rental contract for the municipal stadium had been signed, and plans for the event were well under way. As required by the constitution, the Witnesses notified the authorities of the planned convention. Then, with only one month left before the opening session, the Sumy City Council decided, basing their opinion on the Religion Law, that a simple notification was not sufficient. According to the council, the use of the stadium by the Witnesses required permission, which the council refused to grant.
On short notice, Jehovah’s Witnesses had to arrange to hold the convention in the city of Kharkiv, some 125 miles (about 200 kilometers) from Sumy. The change of venue forced more than 3,500 Witnesses to adjust their plans quickly. Many could not travel to Kharkiv to attend this important event because of age or health. Others could not attend because they were unable to get time off from their employment or because they had no funds to make the trip to Kharkiv. The next year, the Sumy City Council again resorted to the Religion Law to deny permission for the Witnesses to hold a convention in the stadium.
Illia Kobel, of the national office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Lviv, explained: “The cancellations of the conventions in Sumy were not isolated incidents. On several other occasions, we have had difficulty in renting buildings for our religious services.” For example, in March 2012, officials in the city of Vinnytsia refused to allow the Witnesses to hold a religious meeting in a rented hall, forcing them to make alternate arrangements at the last minute. A few months later, officials denied permission for the congregation in Mohyliv-Podilskyi to hold their weekly religious services in a rented building, even though they had been holding meetings in the building for three years. Having no other suitable building in which to meet, the congregants were forced to meet in crowded conditions in private homes.
As recently as February 2015, the Vinnytsia Regional State Administration insisted that Jehovah’s Witnesses violated the law on numerous occasions. The administration took the position that the Witnesses had violated the law by failing to obtain permission to hold religious meetings in buildings other than their houses of worship. Notification alone was not sufficient.
Witnesses Seek to Resolve Conflict of Laws
In recent years, Jehovah’s Witnesses have generally been able to gather freely in their houses of worship without governmental interference. However, for special meetings or regional conventions, it is often necessary to rent a building with a larger capacity. The Constitution of Ukraine allows a religious organization to assemble peacefully in a rented facility as long as government officials are notified in advance. Mr. Kobel stated: “The root of the problems we experienced was found in the restrictive Religion Law, in contrast with the constitution, which does not require that permission be obtained from the authorities. In an effort to resolve the matter, we submitted the problem to the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, also known as the Ombudsman.”
The Ombudsman’s role is to ensure that all Ukrainian citizens enjoy the rights guaranteed by the nation’s constitution and laws. After examining the challenges faced by Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Ombudsman agreed that there was a conflict between the constitution and the Religion Law. The constitution guarantees the right to assemble upon simple advance notification to government officials that a public religious service is to be held in a rented facility. The Religion Law, however, prohibits public religious services in a rented facility unless the religious group first obtains permission from government officials at least ten days in advance of the event.
On October 26, 2015, the office of the Ombudsman submitted an application to Ukraine’s Constitutional Court, declaring the disputed section of the Religion Law to be unconstitutional. The application reasoned that the right to peaceful assembly is a fundamental freedom guaranteed to all citizens. Enlarging on this right, it stated: “States must abstain from arbitrary measures capable of interfering with the right of free assembly.” In support of the Ombudsman’s position, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine submitted a brief to the Constitutional Court, explaining the difficulties they experienced in renting facilities for religious meetings.
Constitutional Court Invalidates Contradictory Law
In its judgment dated September 8, 2016, the Constitutional Court confirmed that no law may contradict the constitutional right to assemble peacefully upon giving notice to government officials. It also looked beyond the nation’s laws in recognizing Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of religion, and Article 11, which guarantees the right to freedom of assembly without unjustified interference from the State. The Court declared unconstitutional Part 5 of Article 21 of the 1991 Religion Law, which requires that a religious group obtain permission from government officials before it holds a public religious service in a rented facility.
A Welcome Resolution
Holding religious services in a rented building is no longer dependent on the will of government officials who may choose to withhold permission. As guaranteed by the constitution, as long as the Witnesses give advance notice to officials of plans to rent a building for a religious meeting, the request cannot be denied.
Mr. Kobel spoke on behalf of the more than 140,000 of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine: “This recent decision of the Constitutional Court has strengthened the right to peaceful assembly. We are grateful that we will no longer confront official interference when we rent buildings for religious meetings.”