The Estonian Council of Churches (EKN) finds draft legislation to amend the Business Register Act unconstitutional and in breach of religious freedom as it would make it possible to compose public registers of members of congregations.
The Ministry of Justice and Ministry of the Interior have completed amendments to the Business Register Act that would lift the ban on members of congregations being listed in public databases, including those who have attended general meetings where decisions that need to be reflected in the register of religious associations are made.
The Council of Churches finds the plan unsensible and in breach of religious freedom.
Chairman of the EKN Andres Põder writes in a letter to the justice and internal affairs ministers that the council is against repealing section 15, subsection 4 of the Churches and Congregations Act.
The latter currently provides that records of meetings of the general assembly or other bodies, lists of participants or any other documents concerning members of religious organizations cannot be entered into the religious associations register when data is changed.
The item was added in 2017 and repealing it would cause certain issues to resurface, the EKN finds.
"The issue concerns the nature of religious freedom and is based on the principle provided in section 42 of the Constitution according to which the state cannot collect information against a person's will pertaining to their convictions (including religious convictions and affiliation)," Põder wrote.
The new bill would also repeal section 18 of the Churches and Congregations Act according to which information pertaining to members is not included in public records of religious associations. Only persons with legitimate interest as determined by a notary can currently access said data.
"Concerning section 18, regulation should make sure both existing and new lists of members of religious associations (even though the law does not require the latter) would not become a matter of public record," Põder added.
Justice ministry: Documents that include member lists will not be made publicly accessible
ERR was told from the Ministry of Justice that the plan is to move forward with the bill in its current form.
"Applications to make changes in the register will need to include a record of the decision and the body that made it. This record does not have to be complete and an extract will suffice. A list of members who attended the meeting needs to be attached that will allow the registrar to evaluate whether the decision has been made in accordance with the law and rules specified in statutes," Kertu Laadoga, PR adviser for the ministry, said.
She added that the plan is to stick with the version of the bill that will see documents that include lists of members involved in making decisions pertaining to religious associations stored in a register file that is only accessible if legitimate interest can be established.
"The same file holds changes filed prior to 2018. Similar documents of other legal persons will remain a matter of public record where anyone can access them for a fee," Laadoga said.
She explained that one of the main changes introduced by the amendment is the harmonization of register regulation of legal persons in private law.
"For this purpose, the register of NGOs and foundations (complete with subregisters for religious associations, unions, apartment associations, land improvement associations) will be made a subregister of the business register and become subject to regulation governing the latter," the ministry communicated.
The joint register will cover all private-law legal persons, as well as self-employed persons. "This will apply common maintenance of register requirements, principles and organization to all private-law legal persons," Laadoga added.
Editor: Marcus Turovski