Last Updated 12 November 2019

Austria is a democratic Republic with an elected Federal President and a Democratic parliament. In December 2016 presidential elections, a credible challenge by a candidate from the far-right, anti-EU Freedom Party was seen off, with economist Alexander Van der Bellen (independent but supported by The Greens) elected to the presidency.

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Constitution and government

The constitution and other laws and policies protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as freedom of opinion and expression. However, there are some restrictions on speech that might offend religious feelings.

Education and children’s rights

The government funds religious instruction in public schools and places of worship for children belonging to any of the 14 officially recognized religious societies. The government does not offer such funding to other religious groups. Attendance in religious instruction is mandatory for all students unless they formally withdraw at the beginning of the school year; students under the age of 14 require parental permission to withdraw from instruction. Instruction takes place either in the school or at sites organized by religious groups. Some schools offer ethics classes for students not attending religious instruction.

A Kirchenbeitrag or ‘church tax’ must be paid by all members of the Catholic and Protestant Churches. It is operated by the churches, not by the state, however, it can only be avoided by terminating membership of the relevant church.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

De facto blasphemy law

Section 188 of the Austrian Criminal Code, called ‘Vilification of Religious Teachings’, criminalizes: “Anyone who publicly disparages a person or thing that is the object of worship of a domestic church or religious society, or a doctrine, [or other] behavior is likely to attract legitimate offense…” This de facto ‘blasphemy’ law has been used in practice to prosecute and fine individuals (see below).

In October 2018, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld the 2011 conviction under this law of Elizabeth Sabaditsch-Wolf (see “Highlighted cases” below), declaring that freedom of expression can be legitimately restricted by states “to ensure the peaceful co-existence of religious and non-religious groups and individuals under their jurisdiction by ensuring an atmosphere of mutual tolerance”. The ruling has caused concern in that it appears to permit all states under its jurisdiction that have existing blasphemy laws to maintain and enforce them.

In early 2019, Sabaditsch-Wolff, supported by a 500,000 signatories petition for the right to criticise Islam in Europe and by the European Centre for Law & Justice, asked the European Court to re-try the case in the Grand Chamber – the most solemn formation of this Court. This appeal was however rejected by ECHR, that confirmed its October 2018 ruling. Gregor Puppinck of the European Center for Law and Justice commented:

“The Court has not motivated its refusal to refer the affair for an ‘appeal.’ We can only speculate. I see here a shift towards multiculturalism that is prepared to sacrifice freedom of expression to the requirements of ‘living with one another.’ Such a judgement renounces the ideal of justice founded on truth and prefers the arbitrary ideal of ‘tolerance.’ In so doing, it is the judge who decides what can be said on the basis of his own conception of ‘living with one another,’ and of his fear of the reactions of people potentially offended by such words”

Highlighted cases

On 11 December 2009, Catholic clerics in Vienna sued the cartoonist Manfred Deix for two drawings on the website which depict God and the EU prohibition against crucifixes in schools, respectively.

On 22 January 2009, the Austrian politician Susanne Winter was sentenced at a court in Graz to pay a $24,000 fine for “humiliating a religion” by saying, among other things, that Mohammed was a paedophile.

On 11 December 2010, 63-year-old Helmut G. was convicted for offending his Muslim neighbor by yodeling while lawn mowing. The neighbor claimed Helmet was trying to mock and imitate the Muezzin, the Muslim call to prayer.

On 15 January 2011, Elizabeth Sabaditsch-Wolf was convicted of offending religion because she exclaimed, about the Prophet Mohammed’s nine-year-old wife, “If that is not paedophilia, what is it?” Her case would go on to form the basis of a European Court of Human Rights ruling in October 2018 that Austria had the right to enforce its ‘blasphemy’ law (see “De facto blasphemy law” above).

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