Content Moderation, Intermediary Liability, Privacy, Data Protection and Retention, Religious Freedom
J20 v. Facebook Ireland Ltd
Closed Contracts Expression
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The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights found that Spain did not violate Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights when it did not renew a former priest’s contract to teach religion and ethics in a public school after a local newspaper identified him as a married priest and member of a celibacy movement. The Court reasoned that the interference with the priest’s right to respect for private and family life was not disproportionate, especially when he had placed himself in a situation that was incompatible with the Church’s precepts.
Fernández Martínez was ordained a priest in 1961 and in 1984 he applied to the Vatican for dispensation from the obligation of celibacy. The following year he was married in a civil ceremony and he and his wife had five children. Since 1991, he was employed as a teacher of Catholic religion and ethics in a public secondary school under a renewable one-year contract. In accordance with an agreement between Spain and the Holy See, religious education teachers are subject to the bishop’s approval. Although Mr. Martínez was not a civil servant, he was employed and remunerated by the state.
In November 1996, a local newspaper published an article about a gathering of the Movement for Optional Celibacy of Priests and identified by name four of its members, one of which was Mr. Martínez, who advocated for optional celibacy and for a more democratic Church. The article also reported their disagreement with the Church on various issues and included a photograph of Mr. Martínez and his family. On August 1997, the Pope granted the dispensation requested by Mr. Martínez thirteen years earlier, stipulating that he was barred from teaching the Catholic religion in public institutions, unless the local bishop decided otherwise according to his own judgment and provided that there was no scandal. On September 1997, the Diocese of Cartagena informed the Ministry of Education about Mr. Martínez’s termination of service as a religion teacher and the Ministry, in turn, informed Mr. Martínez that his employment had been terminated.
After the national judicial proceedings against the decision of the Ministry to terminate his employment were unsuccessful, Mr. Martínez brought an application before the European Court of Human Rights. He alleged that the non-renewal of his employment contract as a teacher of Catholic religion and ethics in a public secondary school had constituted an unjustified interference with the exercise of his right to respect for his private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In its judgment of May 15, 2012, the Court held by six votes to one that there had been no violation of Article 8 and observed that the circumstances used to justify the non-renewal of the contract were of a strictly religious nature. On July 2013, Fernández Martínez requested that the case be referred to the Grand Chamber arguing that there had been a violation of Article 8. On June 2014, the Grand Chamber concluded, by nine votes to eight, that there had been no violation of Article 8, because the interference with the applicant’s right to respect for his private life had been legitimate and proportionate.
Although the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights recognized that various Convention articles, in particular Articles 8, 9, 10 and 11, were relevant for the assessment of the case, in its view, the main issue lies in the non-renewal of the contract, and as a result, the application was examined under Article 8 of the Convention. According to the Court, the gist of Mr. Martínez’s complaint is that he was not able to remain a teacher of the Catholic religion as a direct consequence of the publicity given to his family situation and of the fact that he was a member of the Movement for Optional Celibacy of Priests. Because he did not complain about being prevented from holding and disseminating certain views or from being a member of the Movement, the Court did not examine the case under Articles 10 and 11.
The Grand Chamber acknowledges that, because their autonomy, religious communities can demand a certain degree of loyalty from those working for them or representing them. Thus, it is not unreasonable for a church or religious community to expect the particular loyalty of religious education teachers, as they may be regarded as representatives of the church. The Court found that, by accepting a publication about his family circumstances and campaigning publicly in movements opposed to Catholic doctrine, Mr. Martínez severed the special bond of trust that was necessary for the fulfillment of the tasks entrusted to him.
Although his remarks about his disagreement with Church’s views fall within the freedom of expression protected by Article 10, it did not mean that the Catholic Church, in the enjoyment of its autonomy, was precluded from acting on the views expressed, especially when the individual expressing them is bound by a duty of loyalty which limits his right to respect for his private life to a certain degree. The Court observed that Mr. Martínez had knowingly placed himself in a situation that was incompatible with the Church’s precepts, and therefore, he should have expected that the voluntarily publicity of his membership in the movement for optional celibacy would not be devoid of repercussions for his contract. The Grand Chamber further observed that in the circumstances of the case, it did not appear that the consequences of the decision not to renew the contract were excessive. Thus, the Court concluded that the interference with Mr. Martínez’s right to respect for his private life was not disproportionate, and accordingly, there had been no violation of Article 8 of the Convention.
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Fernández Martínez’s employment contract was not renewed after his status as a married priest was published by a local newspaper, together with his remarks disagreeing with the Catholic Church’s position in various issues such as abortion, birth control, and optional celibacy. Although the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights examined the case strictly under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to respect for private and family life – it recognized that Martínez’s remarks fell within the freedom of expression protected by Article 10. However, the Court observed that even though the remarks were not taken into account by the Spanish courts, it does not mean that the Catholic Church was precluded from acting on them in the enjoyment of its autonomy, which is also protected by the Convention under Article 9. Because Martínez did not complain about being prevented from holding and disseminating certain views or from being a member of a movement, the Court did not examine the case under Articles 10, freedom of expression, and 11, freedom of assembly and association.
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