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Human Rights in Europe

Victory Attained in Discrimination Case

After testifying in Helsinki Commission hearings, a German woman wins human rights at home

by Peter Mansell

victory for religious equality has been achieved in Germany by a woman whose discrimination case was highlighted in hearings before the Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission) in the U.S. Congress.

Testimony by Claudia Engel, a German citizen and Scientologist, helped to inform the Commission about German governmental discrimination occurring in violation of the country’s commitments under the Helsinki Final Act. The Act is a binding agreement adopted in 1975 by consensus of the nations comprising the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and is one of the fundamental human rights conventions of the Western world.

Scientologists and celebrities John Travolta, Chick Corea and Isaac Hayes testified alongside Engel in the September 1997 hearings. Engel returned to Washington in June 1998 and briefed congressmen and senators individually on her case—a paradigm of German government discrimination.

Engel filed suit in 1995 against the German Federal Labor Ministry challenging a 1994 decree issued by the former Minister of Labor, Norbert Bluem, which denied Scientologists the right to own or operate employment agencies.

After operating such an agency for years, Engel had been summoned in 1995 to the Federal Institution for Employment and instructed to fill out a declaration about her religious affiliation as a test of her “qualifications” for the license she was already granted. Engel refused on the basis that the inquisition was unlawful, discriminatory, and forbidden by the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. The Federal Labor Office responded by cancelling her license—on the basis of a patently false generality of the “unreliability” of Scientologists in operating employment agencies.

Engel filed suit, charging illegal discrimination.

The State Court of Appeals of Rhineland Palatinate agreed with Engel. In a decision published in March 1999, the court declared that discriminatory practices against Scientologists instituted by former Minister of Labor Norbert Bluem were illegal.

As the Labor Office originally deemed Engel reliable when issuing her license, “[t]o now judge differently as it had meanwhile become known that she was a member of the Church of Scientology is not acceptable,” said the Court. “There are no facts which prove the plaintiff’s unreliability.”

The Court also dismissed as irrelevant the Labor Office’s charges about Engel’s religion, since they contained only allegations and speculation, not fact.

Confirming that “any discrimination based on religion or ideology is prohibited,” the decision has broader implications for democratic freedoms.

The judgment will help to end the blatantly discriminatory practice in Germany of requiring that citizens sign the type of declaration refused by Engel. “Sect filters,” as they are known in propaganda terms, force existing and prospective employees and contractors to disclose their religious affiliation. The results are used as a basis for hiring or firing. The filters have also applied to various American business subsidiaries in Germany, as well as German parent companies of American businesses.

The Federal Labor Office was ordered to “bear the extra-judicial costs” Engel had to incur as a result of the unlawful violation of her rights.
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