Fernández Martínez v. Spain: The Grand Chamber Putting the Brakes on the ‘Ministerial Exception’ for Europe?

Recently, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights delivered its eagerly awaited judgment in Fernández Martínez v. Spain. The case concerned the refusal to renew the contract of a teacher of Catholic religion and ethics in a public secondary school, because he had allegedly caused a “scandal” when his situation of ‘married priest’ and his membership of the Movement for Optional Celibacy of priests became public knowledge. By a narrow 9-8 split decision, the Grand Chamber ruled that the applicant’s right to private life had not been violated.

Before the judgment came out, I was fairly confident that it would affirm what I have termed the ‘ministerial exception for Europe’ in an earlier post. Now that the judgment is out, I am forced to come to the opposite conclusion. Instead of confirming the reasoning of the Third Section, the Grand Chamber in Fernández Martínez appears to hark back to the reasoning in earlier cases, such as Obst v. Germany and Schüth v. Germany.

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Fernández Martínez v. Spain : Towards a ‘Ministerial Exception’ for Europe?

In its recent judgment in Fernández Martínez v. Spain, the European Court of Human Rights appears to have abandoned its tried and tested formula of ad hoc balancing between the collective dimension of freedom of religion and individual human rights, established in Obst v. Germany, Schüth v. Germany and Siebenhaar v. Germany. In Fernández Martínez,the Court accepted the Spanish courts’ categorical balancing to the benefit of church autonomy instead, thereby echoing the opinion of the United States Supreme Court on the ‘ministerial exception’ in Hosanna-Tabor.

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