Legal aspects of the interaction between the State and religious denominations were discussed at a panel dedicated to State-Confessional Relations within the 7th St. Petersburg International Legal Forum.
The debate brought together Abbess Xenia (Oksana Chernega), Head of Legal Service at Moscow Patriarchate; Vadim Vinogradov, Doctor of Laws, Professor, Head of the Department at the All-Russian State University of Justice (RLA of the Ministry of Justice of Russia); Damir Muhhetdinov, First Deputy Chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation; Evgeniy Romanov, Head of Legal Department at The Centralised Religious Organisation of Orthodox Judaism 'Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia'; Oliver Ciric, Swiss Attorney; and Mikhail Shakhov, Professor of School of Public Administration at the Lomonosov Moscow State University. The session was facilitated by Sergey Gavrilov, Chairman of the Committee of the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation on the Development of Civil Society, Issues of Public and Religious Associations.
Opening the discussion, the facilitator Sergey Gavrilov noted that such a debate was held for the first time within the Forum and brought together panelists who rarely spoke before the audience, such as heads of the legal departments of religious confessions and international scholars exploring legal relations between confessions and the State.
“Russia enjoys a unique experience which is too complex and diverse to be brought down to individual fragments. This day, for example, marks two memorable events in Russian history: the anniversary of Nicholas II, who is now sanctified, and the Communist Pioneers Day. Surprisingly enough, those two areas coexist rather peacefully in the minds of Russians. Although our country is still considered secular, as compared to others, in reality legislative practices have drastically changed over the last 20 years, in a way that main confessions have now extended their influence beyond their members to encompass the State, with its policies and legislation. Does it imply legal weakness or thrive? This country’s legislation is quite responsive to challenges, which allowed us to adopt a number of crucial decisions. Yet there is room for improvement”, the facilitator went on to say.
Abbess Xenia, Head of Legal Service at Moscow Patriarchate, reminded the panelists of the provisions that govern the relations between Church and State, such as Article 14 of the Constitution and the Federal Law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations. “We are often asked: if religious associations are separated from the State, how can we justify providing governmental assistance to confessions? Peculiarly, principal forms of this assistance are regulated by Article 4 of the Law on the Freedom of Conscience, Abbess Xenia noted.
Damir Muhhetdinov, First Deputy Chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation, stressed that the State had to pay attention to the needs of the main confessions while improving legislation. Otherwise, according to the expert, it might bring negative consequences to the community. “If on one hand the State advocates teaching elements of religion at school, and on the other hand claims that headscarves are incompatible with education, I see a clear contradiction here. You issue a permit with your right hand, and you ban it with your left hand. It is sometimes said that Muslim religion is to found on the outskirts only; however, Moscow is a largest European and Muslim capital where up to three million Muslims live. Muslims are clueless as to why they are not allowed to build a mosque in large megacities. The agenda is changing swiftly, so that the government somewhat fails to keep up with these changes in terms of regulation. It then that Muslims are the victimized”, Damir Muhhetdinov explained.
Mikhail Shakhov, Professor of School of Public Administration, Lomonosov Moscow State University, noted that, in his view, one of the key challenge is how the government and major confessions interact is absence of clear explanation of ‘secular state’ which is referred to in the Constitution of the Russian Federation. “It is agreed that this phrasing is clear and well-articulated; but, apparently, things are slightly less clear than it may seem. The Provision that stipulates that Russia is a secular state, i.e. Article 14 of the Russian Federation Constitution, was put together in 1992 for the first time in Russian history. Globally, there are few countries where the status of a secular state is enshrined in national law; in Europe those are three – Turkey, France, and Russia. In other countries such regulation does not exist”, the expert underlined. To Mikhail Shakhov, legislators should clarify the legal principle of secularity. In addition, for a scholar, elimination of this term from the Constitution due to absence of definite legal meaning is apparently almost impossible for political and procedural reasons. Among other provisions that require clarification the expert mentioned Provision 4 Article 4 and Provision 3 Article 6 of the Federal Law “On Freedom of Religion and Religious Entities”.
“The objective is not to cross out what is already contained in the document. However, absence of a clear definition of the term is a problem. Everyone who is unsatisfied with religion becoming more socially relevant can appeal to this phrasing which becomes a tool of ideology for those who is unsatisfied with religion gaining higher profile in the society”, Mikhail Shakhov concluded.
Vadim Vinogradov, Doctor of Laws, Professor, Head of the Department, All-Russian State University of Justice (RLA of the Ministry of Justice of Russia) supported his colleague’s position that the concept of a “secular state” is apparently vague. He noted, however, that vague regulations entail some advantages as well.
“Such indefiniteness lends itself to different interpretations, especially considering the fact that the regulation stipulated by Article 14 has never been commented by the Constitutional Court. By lending itself to different interpretations the Article enables us to arrive at various trade-offs demanded by the society. The principle of secularity and a clear division between the state and religious entities has to be interpreted in line with the principle of freedom of religion. What does the term ‘division’ mean? We should avoid interpreting it as the fact that the state cannot have anything in common with religious entities. We can neither say that the state and the church never interact at all, nor deem this principle as averse. Mutual autonomy is what we should speak about. Here positive neutrality of the state towards religious entities may be all the essence, when the former recognizes the importance of the latter”, Vadim Vinogradov added.
Evgeniy Romanov, Head of Legal Department, The Centralised Religious Organisation of Orthodox Judaism 'Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia' emphasized the need to enhance legislation on charity that often involves various religious organizations. “Both our confession, as well as others includes a vast number of communities. Charity is most efficient when provided by such organizations. For a long time we have been promoting the issue of a tax benefit for donators – both individuals, and legal entities”, the expert mentioned.
To conclude the session, moderator Sergey Gavrilov expressed his appreciation to all the participants for the sharing their opinions and added that they had an exciting and fruitful discussion.