CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Mainstreaming and Marginalization in the Legal Context - Legislation on the religious associations in the Baltic States

by Ringo Ringvee (Estonia)
A paper presented at The 2009 CESNUR Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 11-13, 2009

The following is about legislation on religion in the Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. All three Baltic countries share a common recent history under the Soviet rule from 1940 to 1941 and from 1944 until 1991 when all these countries reestablished their independence. However, despite of the recent Soviet rule these three societies are religiously different from each other, and their differences are reflected also in the legislative sphere concerning religion.

Religion in the Baltic States

Although the territories of present day Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania became under the Russian rule in different times during the 18th century, these societies have different cultural and religious history as well as the different histories of the native populations and their relations to the dominant churches. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and restituting their independence all the Baltic countries have gone different paths in their reforms. These differences rooted in the cultural, religious and historical background are reflected also in the arrangement of relations between the state and religious institutions.

What could be said about the role of religion in the Baltic States today? According to the Eurobarometer 2005 survey 16 % of Estonian respondents claimed having belief in God, while in Latvia the percentage was 37, and in Lithuania 49.  The belief to the spirit or life force shared accordingly 54, 49, and 36 per cent of the respondents (Eurobarometer 2005).[i] Similar trend is visible also in respect to religious affiliation. According to the population censuses conducted in Estonia (2000) and in Lithuania (2001) 85 % of the Lithuanian population was religiously affiliated while in Estonia the percentage was less than a third of the population. The differences are even more striking when looking to the denominational affiliation. While 79 percent of the Lithuanian population identified themselves with the Catholic Church (and with the second largest, the Orthodox Church 4,1%), the largest denomination in Estonia, the Lutheran one had 14 percent of the population as adherents, followed by the internally divided Orthodox community with 13 percent.[ii] The religious affiliation reflects the role of religion in the society, and this is also reflected to certain extent in the legislation on religions.

After regaining their independence in 1991 all three Baltic States adopted their new Constitutions in the following year. All three constitutions follow the principles of freedom of religion or belief in accordance to the European Convention of Human Rights and Basic Freedoms. However, the differences between the countries became gradually apparent as the legislation concerning religious associations as legal persons was drafted. The common characteristic to all three Baltic countries is that there is not officially state church and the institutions of the state and of religion are separated (Krumina-Konkova 2004). At the same time there have been in all countries mentioned attempts from the so-called traditional churches to acquire dominant social status that they had during the pre-Soviet period, trend that has been characteristic to all post-Soviet societies (Crnic 2007). However, the success of these attempts has been different in different countries. It should be mentioned that all the Baltic States have similar policy according to which the religious communities do not have to register themselves as legal entities for operating in the countries.

Legislation and Politics

Lithuania was the first of the three countries to draft a new legislation on religious communities. The drafting process of a new legislation started already before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The first draft from 1989 granted freedom of religion and all religious associations were to be treated equally without any distinction based on the numbers of adherents or historical presence of a particular religion in Lithuania. However, as the drafting process continued the different treatment of different religious traditions was introduced, and the second draft of the Law on Religious Communities and Associations from 1992 introduced the differentiation between traditional and non traditional religions. When the Law was finally adopted in 1995 the so-called European model of multi-tier system of religious associations was established. Nine religions with the history at least 300 years in Lithuania were considered as traditional religions. The traditional religions were considered as part of Lithuanian historical and cultural heritage and included besides the Roman Catholic Church, also Greek Catholics, Evangelical Lutheran, Evangelical Reformed, Russian Orthodox, Old Believers, and the traditional religious minorities of Lithuania – Jews, Muslims, and Karaites (Zˇiliukaite & Glodenis 2001).

Due to the dominant role of the Catholic Church in Lithuania and its close connection to the Lithuanian national identity it could be considered as the most privileged religious association in the country. So for example it is exempted from all taxes due to the agreement with the State (Glodenis 2008). The relations between the State and Roman Catholic Church in Lithuania are regulated by bilateral agreements. Similar is the situation in other Baltic States.

For religions having a history of more than 25 years in Lithuania there has been a possibility to become state recognized religions if they are considered to have public support, and important role in Lithuanian society, spiritual heritage and culture. The state recognized religions have like the nine traditional religions the right to provide religious education in public schools (Glodenis 2005). The final decision if a religion becomes a state recognized is made by the Parliament. In 2001 this status was granted to the association of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Lithuania, and in 2008 the Seventh-Day Adventist Church became also a state recognized religion.

However, this status has been denied from several other religious associations of which the case of the United Methodist Church is probably the best known who has applied this status since 2001 without success. Also other communities like the New Apostolic Church, and Pentecostals have either applied or reportedly planned to apply for this status (IRFR Lithuania 2004; Zˇiliukaite & Glodenis 2001). The status was denied also from the Lithuanian pagan community “Romuva” in 2002 allegedly by the pressure from the Roman Catholic Church (IRFR Lithuania 2004). The Lithuanian authors have pointed that the differentiation between different religions (traditional, state recognized, non-traditional) is based on historical-cultural and not on legal criteria (Glodenis 2005). Since 2002, Lithuania has been drafting a new law on religious communities. In this draft the requirement for presence in Lithuania before it becomes possible to apply the state recognition has been raised from 25 years to 50 years (Glodenis 2008).

The third group in Lithuanian legislation is the registered religious communities, and this is the category where all the so-called non-traditional religious minorities belong. If a new community wants to get legal entity status it has to be registered as an association by the Ministry of Justice. It should be noted that there has been only few registration refusals. The Ministry refused to register Osho meditation center as a religious community in 1997, 1998, and in 2003 questioning its religious nature of the centre and seeing it objecting the morals of society by requesting AIDS test certificate valid for three month before accepting a member to the centre (Krumina-Konkova 2004). The registered religious communities may provide religious educations only in private schools.

Latvia adopted the first law on religious communities in 1992 that was replaced in 1995 with a new law (Balodis 2001b). The new law was different from the legislation in other two Baltic States in many aspects. The lobby from traditional religious association consequently resulted in the principle – one confession, one church. This principle has denied the possibility to register more than one association from the same tradition affecting both the splinter groups as well as religious traditions with different organizational tradition than the so-called traditional churches. This has consequently resulted the denial of registration independent Old Believers Association as well as registration of Latvian Free Orthodox Church, and Confessional Lutheran Church. Registration process was difficult for the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1990s and registration was difficult also for Christian Science as opposed by Latvian Medical Association (Krumina-Konkova 2004, Crnic 2007).

The principle ‘one confession, one church’ has been criticized in Latvia as a violation of the principles of freedom of religion (Balodis 2001a). Also the religious communities starting their activities in Latvia for the first time must to reregister themselves annually at the Ministry of Justice for the first ten years.

The Latvian Law on Religious Organizations and Associations from 1995 stipulates that religious education in public schools may be taught only by representatives of Evangelical Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Old Believer, Baptist, and Jewish religions, i.e. traditional denominations, and this education is funded by the state.[iii] In schools for national minorities the religious education is possible if the religious taught is characteristic to the national minority. All three Baltic States, however, give the possibility to open private schools by registered religious associations, including the “new” religions if they have obtained a legal entity status.

After the Latvian Parliament ratified the agreement with Roman Catholic Church in 2002, the pressure from other religious associations for similar agreements emerged. In 2007 Latvian Parliament adopted laws for Latvian Old-Believer Pomora Church, Seventh Day Adventist Union, Union of Latvian Baptists, United Methodist Church, Riga Jewish Religious Community. In 2008 also the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church Law as well as the Latvian Orthodox Church Law were adopted.

In 1993 the Estonian Parliament adopted Churches and Congregations Act that established the general neo-liberal policy prevailing at the Estonian society at the time also in the field of religion. The proposals from the Lutheran clergy to make a differentiation between old and new religion were not realized, and iIn Estonian legislation there are no specific references to any religion or religious association. The registration requirements are same to all religious associations and all registered religious associations are eligible to the tax privileges. From 2001 all religious association have the right to apply the right to conduct marriages of civil validity to their clergy. Currently the clergy from 20 different denominations have this right.

In 2002 a new Churches and Congregations Act was adopted in Estonia. There were some minor changes in the new Act while the basic principles remained as they were in the 1993 Act. One of the main changes was that the registration of religious association was shifted from the Ministry of Interiors to the courts. Although the new law introduced the mandatory use of terms congregation, association of congregations, church or monastery in the official name of an association, this principle was removed in 2004 due to the protest from the indigenous religious association who saw that by enforcing them to use one of these terms in their association’s name is a violation of the principles religious freedom.

While the first wave of anti-cult movements had reached the Baltic States by the mid-1990s, the second wave arrived with a new millennium and with the rise of state sponsored anti-cult activities in the Western, especially Francophone Europe. Especially important seems to be in this respect the adoption of the French so-called About-Picard law in 2001. Already in December 2001 the Lithuanian Parliament received proposal for draft legislation "On Barring the Activities of Sects" from a Member of Parliament. The draft was criticized both by Parliament's Department of Law as well as by the Government's Department of European Law indicating its unconformity with the European law and the draft was eventually rejected (IRFR Lithuania 2002, IRFR Lithuania 2003). Similar trends became visible also as the new law on religious associations was drafted in Estonia. The final outcome of the debate on destructive sects in Estonia was the inclusion of the restrictions on religious activity following the principles of the ECHR Article 9 (2) to the new law though these principles were already stipulated in Article 40 of the Estonian Constitution.

In the context of minority religions, i.e. new minority religions in the Baltic States it should be mentioned that despite additional criticism or sensationalism toward new religions mostly from the dominant traditional churches there has not been ground for serious anti-cult activities (Krumina-Konkova 2004). Following the recommendations No. 1412 and No. 1178 of the Council of Europe Lithuania established governmental commission for monitoring the activities of religious, esoteric or spiritual groups in 2001.[iv] In March 2004, Lithuanian Parliament established a Working Group on Issues of Spiritual and Religious Groups as a response to complaints from people whose relatives had allegedly been harmed by religious "sects." (IRFR 2005 Lithuania).

Although there have been cases in all Baltic States where rights of the minority religions have been violated like for example when the school of Charismatic Evangelical Word of Faith Church was refused of reregistering its school after the relocation of the school from Vilnius city to Vilnius county in 1999, but there has not been any serious policy against minority or specifically new minority religions. The calls from traditional churches or from politicians to restrict the activities of less known religions have been successful only for a short period of time, and the rule of law has prevailed in general.


As mentioned in the beginning, the legislation in the Baltic States differ to some extent, mostly due to the role religion has in the society. The registration requirements are not unrealistic for any community as the founding membership requirement is for example from 10 in Lithuania to 20 members in Latvia. However, there exists also different kind of minority religions – traditional and non-traditional. While Estonian legislation does not mention any particular religious tradition, the Latvian and Lithuanian ones do. At the same time it should be pointed out that in Lithuania the traditional minority religions – Judaists, Muslims, and Karaites – have the same rights with other traditional religions. So the differentiation seems not to be between majority and minority religions as much as between the old and new religions, between familiar an unfamiliar.


Balodis, Ringolds 2001a. State and Church in Latvia. – Ringolds Balodis (Ed.) State and Church in the Baltic States: 2001. Riga: Religijas Brivibas Asociacija. Pp. 13 – 42.

Balodis, Ringolds 2001b. History of State and Church Relationships in Latvia  2001. European Journal for Church and State Reasearch Vol. 8, 295 – 315).

Crnic, Ales 2007. New Religions in „New Europe”. Journal of Church and State, 3, 517 – 551.

Eurobarometer 2005.  <http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_225_report_en.pdf> Accessed 29. 04. 2008.

Glodenis, Donatas 2005. Legislation on Religion and the Challenge of Pluralism in Lithuania. <http://en.religija.lt/showarticle.php?articleID=17> Accessed 11. 05. 2009.

Glodenis, Donatas 2008. Administrative and Financial Matters in the Area of Religious Freedom and Religious Communities: Case of Lithuania.– in Drago Cepar (ed.) Legal Aspects of Religious Freedom. (Ljubljana: Office of the Government of the Republic of Slovenia for Religious Communities), Pp. 392 – 408.

IRFR 2002.  International Religious Freedom Report 2002. Lithuania. US Department of State.

<http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2002/13946.htm> Accessed 30. 05. 2009

IRFR 2003.  International Religious Freedom Report 2003. Lithuania. US Department of State. <http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2003/24419.htm> Accessed 30. 05. 2009

IRFR 2004.  International Religious Freedom Report 2004. Lithuania. <http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2004/35468.htm> Accessed 30. 05. 2009

IRFR 2005.  International Religious Freedom Report 2005. Lithuania. <http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2005/51565.htm> Accessed 30. 05. 2009

Krumina-Konkova, Solveiga 2004. New Religious Minorities in the Baltic States. – Phillip Charles Lucas & Thomas Robbins (Eds.) New Religious Movements in the 21st Century. Legal, Political, and Social Challenges in Global Perspective. New York & London: Routledge. Pp. 117 – 127.

Žiliukaite, Ruta & Donatas Glodenis. State and Church in Lithuania. – Ringolds Balodis (Ed.) State and Church in the Baltic States: 2001. Riga: Religijas Brivibas Asociacija. Pp. 67 – 94.

[i] Eurobarometer 2005. <http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_225_report_en.pdf> Accessed 29. 04. 2008.

[ii] In Latvia the question concerning religion was not included to the census’ questionnaire as it was considered too sensitive.

[iii] In Lithuania the situation is somewhat similar to Latvia. So in Lithuania only traditional communities have the right to teach religion in public schools. In Estonia the situation is different as the religious education is non-denominational, and as it is voluntary subject to students the religious education is provided only in a tiny minority of public schools. On religious education in Estonian public schools see Pille Valk ‘Religious Education in Estonia.’ – in Jackson, Robert; Miedema, Siebren; Weisse, Wolfram; Willaime, Jean-Paul (Eds.). Religion and Education in Europe. Developments, Contexts and Debates. Münster, New York, München, Berlin: Waxmann Verlag GmbH, 2007, pp. 159 – 180.

[iv] The Minister of Justice appoints the chairperson of the commission, which also comprises representatives of the Ministries of Justice, Interior, Education, Health, and Foreign Affairs, the General Prosecutor's office, and the State Security Department. The Government established the commission following some parliamentarians' calls for increased control of "sects." (IRFR 2005)