The protestant and catholic Churches have been described as “the most powerful corporation in Germany” – so vast is their wealth and so large is their workforce.
Although no exact data exists, research from 2005 estimates that the Catholic and Protestant churches have a combined annual turnover of €125 billion – a figure that approaches the €230 billion annual turnover of Volkswagen, Germany’s biggest car maker.
Through their charities, the churches also employ over a million people, making them the second largest employer behind the state. Caritas, the Catholic charity, and Diakonie, the Protestant charity, each run thousands of kindergartens, elderly homes, hospitals and social centres across the country.
As of Tuesday though, the churches will have to rethink their hiring policy.
The European Court of Justice ruled that the churches are not allowed to demand from a job applicant that they belong to the church.
The Luxembourg judges said that churches could only reject a job application on religious grounds if belonging to the church “is objectively required for the job.”
The case came about after the Diakonie published a job advertisement for a temporary consultant position to report on the UN anti-racism convention. A requirement for applicants was to be a member of the Protestant church, which was to be indicated on one’s résumé.
Vera Egenberger, a woman from Berlin who didn’t belong to the church applied for the job anyway. In every other respect she was highly qualified for the job – she had previously worked on anti-racism reporting and had experience with the UN – but she didn’t hear anything for 12 months. Then, when she had already given up any hope of hearing back, the Diakonie returned her application without comment.
Egenberger suspected that she had been rejected for the job simply because of her lack of religion, so she decided to sue the church for €10,000 in compensation.
Several German courts gave contradictory rulings on the case, until the Federal Labour Court asked the European Court to rule on whether the Diakonie application requirements were justifiable under EU anti-discrimination laws.
The European Court of Justice explained in its ruling on Tuesday that the churches have special privileges on employment. But the judges ruled that a balance had to be found between the independence of the churches and the individual's right to equal chances irrespective of religious beliefs.
Churches can only employ people based on faith when there is “a clear, legal and justified demand for it based on the method of the organization,” the European judges ruled.
A court in Düsseldorf will now have to reconsider whether Egenberger has a claim to compensation.