The following text is taken by permission from Frank Cranmer’s “Notes on Church and State . . .” – see this introductory note.
Article 7(1) of the Constitution (Equality, Political Rights) declares that Austria is a secular State: ‘All federal nationals are equal before the law. Privileges based upon birth, sex, estate, class or religion are excluded.‘ The status of religious organisations is governed by the 1874 Law on Recognition of Churches and by the 1998 Law on the Status of Religious Confessional Communities. Relations between the State of Austria and the Roman Catholic Church are governed by treaties with the Holy See that are recognised in public international law and may be transposed into domestic law under Article 50 of the Constitution. The treaties provide, inter alia, that the Roman Catholic Church may make laws within its own sphere of competence and that those institutions that have legal personality in canon law also have legal personality in public law (Potz 2005: 397).
There are three distinct kinds of religious organisation: officially-recognised religious societies, religious confessional communities, and associations. The following are recognised under the 1874 Law: the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the Reformed Church, the Old Catholic Church, the Islamic community, the Jewish community, the Orthodox (Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian and Bulgarian), the Oriental Orthodox (Armenian, Coptic and Syrian), the Methodist Church, the New Apostolic Church, the Buddhists, the Mormons and the Jehovah‘s Witnesses (who were recognised as a religious society in May 2009). An application for recognition by the Alevis was rejected in August 2009, the Government arguing that the Alevi belief was merely part of Islam – which was already a recognized religious society. (IRFR 2010: Austria).
Communities recognised under the 1874 Law on Recognition of Churches benefit from the church tax and may provide religious instruction in State schools. The Government also provides religious societies recognised under the 1874 Law with financial support for religious teachers at both public and private schools – but does not provide funding for those of other religious organisations. It also gives financial support to private schools run by the officially-recognised religious societies with ‗public corporation‘ status, permitting them to engage in a number of public or quasi-public activities that are denied to confessional communities and associations.
The 1998 Law established ‗confessional communities‘ alongside ‗religious societies‘. Religious societies established under the 1874 Law retained their previous status; but a new religious group seeking to achieve the status as a religious society must fulfil stringent criteria for recognition: a 20-year period of existence and membership of at least 0.2 per cent of the population (approximately 16,000 people).
Recognition as a confessional community does not carry the fiscal and educational privileges available to a religious society, though a recognised confessional community acquires legal personality and may therefore hold land and enter into contracts. To qualify, a group must have at least 300 members and get Government approval for its constitution, its membership regulations and a summary of its religious doctrines. The Ministry of Education examines applicant organisations‘ doctrines to ensure compliance with public policy. Currently there are ten confessional communities: the Baha’i, the Baptists, the Evangelical Alliance, the Movement for Religious Renewal/Community of Christians, the Free Christian Community (Pentecostalists), the Pentecostal Community of God, the ELAIA Christian Community, the Seventh-day Adventists, the Hindu Religious Community, and the Mennonites. The Ministry rejected the application of the Sahaja Yoga group in 1998 – a decision subsequently upheld in the Constitutional Court and Administrative Court. (IRFR 2009: Austria). Most recently, the applications of The Movement for Religious Renewal–Community of Christians for recognition as a religious society was rejected by the Education Ministry and the group filed an appeal with the Constitutional Court. (IRFR 2010: Austria).
Religious groups not recognised either as religious societies or as confessional communities may apply to become associations under the Law of Associations, thereby enabling them to hold property.
The situation in Austria with regard to the length of the registration process has been criticised by the European Court of Human Rights: see Religionsgemeinschaft Der Zeugen Jehovas & Ors v Austria  ECtHR 762 (No. 40825/98) (31 July 2008) and Verein Der Freunde Der Christengemeinschaft & Ors v Austria  ECtHR (No. 76581/01) (26 February 2009). In the latter case, it was held that the requirement of a ten-year waiting period in order to register as a religious community was unreasonable and in breach of Article 14 ECHR (discrimination) taken in conjunction with Article 9.