30 June 2011 – Strasbourg
In a Chamber Judgment of 30 June 2011 in the case Association Les Témoins de Jéhovah v. France (application no. 8916/05), the European Court of Human Rights held that there had been a violation of Article 9 religious freedom rights in a supplementary tax demand for more than 57.5 million Euros made by the French tax authorities upon the applicant association during the years 1993-1996.
Critics of the French action had noted that the 60% supplementary tax levied on the Association, which relies upon donations for its functioning, was a procedure that was never applied to other religions and that could have financially crippled the organization, which under a 1995 classification was regarded in France as a “sect.”
The Court found that the tax assessment represented a cut in the association’s operating resources sufficient to interfere with the free exercise of its members’ religion in practical terms, thereby constituting violation of Article 9. In judging whether such interference was a limitation “prescribed by law,” the Court found that the law under which the manual donations were classified as gifts subject to supplementary tax was not formulated with sufficient clarity, and its application in the case was not therefore sufficiently foreseeable.
The 30 June decision was given by a unanimous court, with Judge Costa, Court President and judge in respect of France, issuing his opinion separately. The decision is not final, and the Court reserved the Article 41 issue, concerning the association’s request for cancellation of the supplementary tax assessment, restitution of the amounts seized on the occasion of the tax audit (more than 4.5 million euros, plus interest), and amounts in respect of non-pecuniary damage and costs and expenses to be not ready for decision. The Court therefore reserved these matters for decision at a later date in the light of additional observations from the parties and/or an agreement reached by them.