Italy’s Supreme Court Rules Against Evangelicals in Battle Over Defining Worship Space

Members of the evangelical Breccia di Roma, a Reformed Baptist Church in the heart of Rome, have been meeting in a small space in a commercial building for the last several years. Now the Italian Supreme Court is seeking to crack down on such practices.

By Jules Gomes Published on June 20, 2024

In a verdict that could cripple Italy’s beleaguered evangelicals, the nation’s Supreme Court has ruled that the worship space of a prominent Baptist Church does not qualify as a religious building.

The Court of Cassation overturned two previous lower court verdicts in favor of Breccia di Roma, a Reformed Baptist Church in the center of Rome. Previously, the courts ruled that the state should leave determining the character of its place of worship to each religious community.

In the June 11 verdict, Judge Federico Sorrentino declared that the lack of “structural changes consistent with the characteristics related to the exercise of religious activities” disqualified the church’s building from being classified as a sanctuary for worship.

“The ruling of the Supreme Court is a sad and painful testimony of the archaic culture that dominates much of Italian jurisdiction and bureaucracy,” the Rev. Dr. Leonardo di Chirico, lead pastor of Breccia di Roma, told The Stream. “Apparently, it continues to believe that a place of worship must possess ‘objective characteristics,’ like Roman Catholic churches with altars, statues, chapels, etc.”

Pastor Laments “Ideological” Ruling

Describing the ruling as “grossly unfair and discriminatory” as well as “ideological and prejudicial,” di Chirico added: “Saying that religious buildings should have ‘objective characteristics’ is both an assault to basic principles of religious freedom and pluralism and an attestation of the crass ignorance of Protestantism, which is a pillar of our modern world.”

Breccia di Roma, a small church that nonetheless has a significant theological impact in the region, is being forced to pay 50,000 euros in court costs and property tax arrears for what the court now classifies as “commercial property” dating back the last five years (when the lawsuit began).

The church property will also be taxed like a commercial property, even though it is registered as a nonprofit religious association and therefore excluded from “business”-related tax deductions.

Verdict Threatens Evangelical Churches

The move will have dire consequences for dozens of small evangelical churches across Italy, which are already struggling financially. Most cannot even afford to pay a full-time minister.

“Existing, let alone growing, as an evangelical church in Italy can be compared to frontier missions,” the Rev. Loren Holland, lead pastor of Rome International Church, told The Stream. The people’s “familiarity with Protestantism seems virtually nonexistent.

“For many of us evangelical churches who are registered with the Italian government under the same status as Religious Associations, we are very curious to see how this ruling will affect us,” he added. “In many ways Breccia di Roma has inspired and led the way for our own church by their gospel proclamation and presence in this city. We stand with them in the knowledge that God will continue to build His church in Rome, and we pray for the Lord’s wise intervention.”

The Rev. Tyler McMiller, a church planter and pastor of the Confessional Lutheran Church of Italy, echoed Holland’s fears.

“Instead of recognizing that the church is made up of the sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd, the Italian courts have decided that it is about external things like architecture, images, statues, and vestments,” McMiller told The Stream.

“Christ Jesus promises to be with His Church through His Word. It is by that Word we are made children of God and made members of His Church. My fear is that this ruling threatens Christians who seek to gather around the things by which Jesus promises His presence,” he added.

Ruling Revives Memories of Historic anti-Protestantism

Meanwhile, the ruling has triggered memories of the Papal States and the period of Fascism under Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, during which Protestants faced state-sponsored persecution. Italy was an Axis power and Mussolini an ally of Nazi Germany during World War II.

Historian Paolo Zanini, a professor at the University of Milan, documents how the Fascist government joined forces with the Roman Catholic Church to persecute the growing Pentecostal movement from 1935 to 1955.

In April 1935, Mussolini’s government issued the infamous Buffarini-Guidi decree banning all religious activities of Pentecostal churches, arguing that they endangered the population and the continuity of the “Italian race.”

The government shut down Pentecostal fellowships and arrested pastors and worshippers after the decree was published.

However, in November 1953, the Supreme Court declared that Pentecostalism could not be restricted because the Buffarini-Guidi decree had not been publicized to citizens, but remained only an internal directive issued to the Prefects.

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Furthermore, articles 17 and 19 of the Italian Constitution gave Pentecostals the right to meet, without giving any notice to the authorities, to worship in public or private places.

The decree remained in force until 1955, eight years after the Italian Constitution — which guarantees full religious freedom — was signed into law in December 1947.

Recent findings from the Vatican Secret Archives reveal Pope Pius XII’s ambassador to the Fascist government, Cardinal Francesco Borgongini, praised the Mussolini dictatorship for helping prevent Protestants from evangelizing in Italy.

Italy’s Constitution Guarantees Freedom of Worship

According to Article 8 of the Constitution of the Italian Republic, “All religious confessions are equally free before the law,” and non-Catholic religious confessions “have the right to organise themselves in accordance with their own statutes, provided that these statutes are not in conflict with Italian law.”

“The argument put forward by the Supreme Court could have made sense before the 1848 Albertine Statute with the Papal States still in place,” di Chirico lamented. “The statute introduced the ‘toleration’ of non-Catholic religions in the Italian kingdom since under papal rule, there was no religious freedom in Rome and surrounding territories.”

Breccia di Roma is planning to appeal the ruling to the European Court of Human Rights.

“There is clearly a spiritual battle going on, di Chirico said. “We know that where there is the progress of the Gospel, there also rages a battle. We are holding high the word of God in Rome and praying for a reformation according to the Gospel. The Lord has already won and will win.”

 

Dr. Jules Gomes, (BA, BD, MTh, PhD), has a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Cambridge. Currently a Vatican-accredited journalist based in Rome, he is the author of five books and several academic articles. Gomes lectured at Catholic and Protestant seminaries and universities and was canon theologian and artistic director at Liverpool Cathedral.

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