Legislation on Religion and the Challenge of Pluralism in Lithuania

Versija spausdinimui

by Donatas Glodenis

This paper will focus on the model of State-Church relations in Lithuania, paying special attention to the genesis of the model and the influence of the model of Church-State relations on Lithuania’s public discourse on religion, its mass media and public administration.

In the wake of Lithuanian independence a new openness to the plurality of perspectives (including those on religion) is to be observed in the country. Within the legal framework, this new openness is expressed as a commitment to establish religious freedom.

However, the tensions between the pluralistic perspective on society and an already established monolithic ideal has led to an adoption of a Law on Religious Communities and Associations that differentiates religious communities into traditional and non-traditional. This law has provided for further elaboration of different statuses of religious communities.

It is my thesis that the legal definitions in the Law on Religious Communities and Associations (LRCA) have facilitated a social stagnation in Lithuanian attitudes towards minority religions. These conform to an essentially anti-cult view, and because of the prevailing anti-cult attitudes in Europe, similar - albeit legal - definitions of religious communities have been adopted in Lithuania.

Basic features of the State-Church relations model in Lithuania

The model that the LRCA introduced into the sphere of State-Church relations in Lithuania could be called one of Positive/Neutral relationship. It is based on an assumption that the State is “partly competent” in matters of religion[1] (Vaišvilaitė) and is able to discern which religions have a constructive influence on society (Peškaitis). The State maintains a positive attitude towards the nine traditional religions (and the would-be State recognized religions), while it is neutral towards all other faiths that have been in Lithuania for less than 25 years. Lithuanian law stipulates that a religion must be present within Lithuania before it may apply for the State recognition.

The differentiation of religious communities in Lithuania is based on historical – cultural criteria rather than legal criteria (Vaišvilaitė). The traditional religious associations are considered to be those that have existed in the country for 300 to 400 years and have survived the turbulent times - thereby proving their strength and cultural value. The State also recognizes that other religious associations, if they have existed in Lithuania 25 years or longer and have public support, are a part of the historical, social and spiritual heritage of the country. The specific legal – pragmatic criteria are not that important, e.g., there is no particular size of membership number required. If this were not the case, it would have been difficult for the not so numerous Caraite, Moslem and Jewish communities to be included as traditional religions. Also, there are no neutrally legal categories (such as the public law / private law corporations in Germany’s system) that could be used to describe the different statuses of religious communities. Instead, historically and culturally related terms become legal descriptions. Consequently, the “traditional” and “non-traditional” labels have been attached to the different statuses of religious communities in Lithuania[2].

The historical genesis of the law

The Law on Religious Communities and Associations of the Republic of Lithuania was a law that was born as an idea even before Lithuania regained its independence from the Soviet rule. The need for a new law was evident. The old Soviet “Regulations of Religious Enterprises” were no longer applicable to the newly emerging democratic society: the former rules placed prohibitions on the religious activities and religious instruction of religious communities, and they did not even provide for legal corporate rights to be granted to religious communities. But after the public and government-backed independence movement at the end of the 1980s, both new and old religious communities first functioned freely. Nonetheless, this new exercise of freedom existed despite and not because of the old legal standards which remained nominally in force. The need for new regulations on the activities of religious communities became evident. Therefore, a work group was sanctioned by the Supreme Council of Lithuania to prepare a new draft of the law. It should be mentioned that this new draft of the law was to take shape in a virtual vacuum of legal regulation of non-profit initiatives of citizens in Lithuania, with no national experience or frame of reference.

The preparation of the law took a surprising 6 years – from the autumn of 1989, when the first workgroup to prepare the law was formed by the presidium of the Supreme Council (Peškaitis), up until the adoption of the law by the Seimas of Lithuania on October 4th, 1995. The draft of the law had been submitted to the Seimas four times: in 1990, 1992, 1993 and 1995. It was returned to the work group three times for corrections and elaborations. It is interesting to observe the developments from one draft version to the other – the first draft was very liberal, proposing no differentiation of religious communities, and positively asserting, that all religious communities are equal before the law (even as the citizens are equal). The later versions introduced differentiation. This was quite rigid and unbridgeable in the 1992 draft, but the differences becoming softer in later versions.

The draft of 1990 was a joint effort between the former regime’s atheist philosophers and representatives of different religious communities to establish freedom of both belief and unbelief and the free exercise thereof. It is possible that at the time anything seemed better to the social representatives as well as to all religious communities than the previous Soviet restrictions. Consequently, the 1990 draft was as liberal as possible.

The situation, however, soon changed, and the second draft included regulations that are quite restrictive towards some religious communities. The differentiation between traditional and “other” religious communities was introduced, with no way to bridge the divide. Only the traditional religious communities (including Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, Evangelical Reformed, Russian Orthodox, Old Believers, Judaist, Sunni Muslim and Karaite) were granted the right to teach catechesis lessons in the public schools and use the national media. Registration of religious communities was not required, but, for a community to get legal person rights, it had to have 300 members in Lithuania. Later drafts softened some of these starkly differential requirements, but basically the still followed the same model of differentiation.

There are several reasons why the basic concept of the LRCA has changed so dramatically during the process of drafting the law. One was an increasing fear of the imported, non-traditional religiosity, which flooded Lithuania at the same time as the walls of political oppression came down. The differentiation, thus, could be interpreted as an attempt to minimize the further spread of religious pluralism with a legal means that would not be judged discriminatory. According to the head of the initial work group Vytautas Ališauskas, even in 1990 the work group was grappling over a question of how to secure public order and give equal rights to everyone at the same time. Rumours about Satanists and different NRM’s, clearly relating to the ideology of the western European anti-cult movements, were beginning to influence the work of Lithuanian lawmakers. One of the arguments later used for the elaborate procedure of State recognition was that harmful religious groups, Satanists and sects would not be able to take advantage of equal opportunities with undesirable social consequences (Peškaitis; Jurkūnaitė). One other member of the work group, Petras Plumpa, advisor of the government on religious affairs from 1993-2001, often stated to the media (after the adoption of the law) that the LRCA was not restrictive enough. He felt that the law should be amended to enable the State to interfere in conflicts that involved people complaining about the behaviour of a religious group, or a member of one’s family becoming involved and fanatical, or such similar issues that were not covered under the current law (Žemulienė). Though it is doubtful that a lot of formal contacts existed between the western anti-cult movement and the people who prepared the law, echoes of the former were felt quite clearly throughout the process of drafting the law (Baltušytė interview).

In words of Catholic Rev. Vaclovas Aliulis, who participated in preparing the drafts of 1990, 1992 and 1993, the earliest (1990) draft relied mostly on the North American concept of equality of religious bodies, thus drawing no differentiating boundaries between the different religious communities. Later, however, the “European” model was used, both to draft the law and to defend it against critics. In the words of Arūnas Peškaitis, the head of the work group in the final stages of its work,

… it would not be very European-like or realistic to make [the rights of all religious communities] completely equal. … Would the opponents of those preparing the draft want a Satanist sect, having got the legal status, to at once (as a State recognized church) start teaching our children at school and us all from the TV screen? (Peškaitis).

In 1992 some non-traditional religious communities[3] began to perceive the draft law differentiating religious communities to be a threat to the freedom of religious expression. They addressed the Government and Seimas of Lithuania, as well as various international organizations that seek to defend the freedom of religion and demand equality of religious communities. In autumn 1994 a representative of non-traditional religious communities was included in the work group drafting the law (Jasiulytė). The efforts of the non-traditional communities are partly responsible for the numerous times the draft was returned from the Seimas to the workgroup for further developments, as well as for some minor changes in the draft. However, in 1995 the Seimas voted for the workgroup majority draft, thus putting an end to the long development process of the law.

Some problems with the current formulations in the law

From an objective perspective, certain problems arise from the model of Church-State relations in Lithuania and the definitions used in the LRCA to differentiate religious communities. An academic evaluation, of course, differs from that of either the Ministry of Justice or the Government of Lithuania.

It should perhaps be stressed that a perfectly pluralistic State without differentiation on the grounds of religion could hardly exist. Complete equality, as all perfections, remains a desired goal - one that continually retreats on the horizon. A degree of differentiation is normal in most democracies of today. The State cannot give all the different religious communities the holidays they want or create safe havens for every new and different religious group to remain unaffected and blissful and complaint-free over different treatment. Our cultures, even those of the most pluralistic States, remain strongly bound to worldviews that are at their heart religious. In other words, it is virtually impossible to create a completely neutral State and social order.

At the same time, when needed, there are more commensurate and less commensurate ways to differentiate. All religious groups should have reasonable legal means to advance and establish themselves They are entitled to the means to make their rights equal to their responsibilities. Without going into legitimacy of the Church-State relations model chosen in Lithuania, the following difficulties are nevertheless discernible.

Historical vs. legal reasons for differentiation

In choosing historical-cultural and not legal reasons for differentiation, the Lithuanian legislature has declared itself to be partly competent in judging the social value of religious communities. Moreover, by choosing culture-related terms (traditional / non-traditional) to describe the different legal statuses, the State has given the opportunity for much value laden talk to enter into the legal sphere. Of course some countries have an abundance of value-laden terminology, such as that for describing the established church, but even terms like “state religion” or “established church” are easily perceived to be an overstatement. Few people would take the official church to mean anything other than the acceptable culture-related tradition, maybe a compatible one, and maybe a relic of old times. To speak of traditional/non-traditional churches in Lithuania is not the same, for here the State checks, decides and officially declares what is valuable. It is not just some nice relic or tradition but the real state of things reflected by legal policy, and this impression is hard to overcome in the public discourse.

The system would be less questionable if the special status of the different religions was determined by State-Church agreements without the attachment of value-laden categories (Spain and Italy come to mind first). Agreement is in fact a negotiable process. A law is also a result of bargaining, though this is much less obvious to the public. In Lithuania the State has sole power to change the status of religious associations that are not, under current circumstances, perceived as partners. It is essentially a one-sided, top-down relationship. Even the traditional communities are not perceived in the LRCA as partners to the State, but rather as a cultural heritage that should be preserved.

Open-ended differentiation

The other problem for Lithuania is the fact that having the legal categories created just for the religious communities, and differentiating them according to those categories, leaves the door wide open for privileges and restrictions to be introduced later on in the process of law making.

For example: when LRCA was adopted in 1995, the only real difference between the traditional and other religious communities was the fact that traditional communities could have catechesis classes in the State-run schools. Now, in the year 2001, among others, the differences include in addition:

  • The possibility to have church marriages;
  • VAT benefits for the traditional religious communities;
  • State donations to traditional religious communities;
  • The ability to purchase land for non-agricultural use;
  • The use of State-run mass media;
  • Full State support for the confessional primary and secondary schools;

It might be convenient for the legislator to insert the word “traditional” before statements concerning the rights of particular religious communities, and this could amount to the danger of a creeping discrimination on religious grounds becoming programmed into the current legal system of Lithuania.

Framing of the public discourse on religion

This is by far the most difficult consequence of the adoption of LRCA. It is the thesis of this paper that the LRCA, by using definitions for legal differentiation that are historical and cultural rather than purely legal, has introduced a powerful framework that defines the way the public administration institutions and the media view the religious communities in general. This structure has in part replaced the more usual framework of differentiation of religious communities used by the anti-cult movement, namely, into religions/sects (cults).

From a social psychological perspective, according to Gamson, a frame is

“[…] a central organizing idea or story line that provides meaning to an unfolding strip of events, weaving a connection among them. The frame suggests what the controversy is about, the essence of the issue (Gamson, p. 143).

Thus, for the popular media, a frame of reference for religious matters is often dualistic – one that presents an easy to understand distinction between good religions and bad religions, namely, religions, on the one hand, and cults or sects, on the other. The number of `bad’ religions in Lithuania is usually rather low: the most often mentioned include the Jehovah Witnesses, Unification movement, the Church of Scientology, and the Rajneesh communes. Up to five years ago, most of the other groups were simply described as religious minorities.

In Lithuanian public discourse on religion an interesting reversal has occurred. A number of scholars of religion have refused to use the term sect altogether, thus doing away with the popular frame of religion / sect distinction, and encouraging the media to do the same. However, an alternative was already available – the distinction between traditional and non-traditional religions, introduced by the LRCA. Less informed and objective media elements have readily adopted the new frame of reference or, in some cases, have continued to employ both frames by identifying them together. Basically, this has meant equating the former concept of “sect” with the newer one of “non-traditional religion”. More informed media representatives usually explain what is meant by the concept of “non-traditional”, but the concept still appears mainly in the negative contexts. Since the notion is used with negative connotations, the simplistic framework of good – traditional / bad – non-traditional is simply reinforced. The most controversial aspect is the fact that the category of non – traditional communities is much larger than the category of the traditional ones.

As Brigitte Schön suggests, “frames not only allow the reduction of large quantities of information to a manageable size, they also allow the completion of sketchy information by analogical inference as well as the interpretation of ambiguous information” (Schön, p. 1). Thus, when the public discourse on religion is framed by the differentiation proposed in LRCA, the clues about the behaviour of less known religious minorities are inferred from the behaviour of the more known religious minorities that naturally happen to be the more scandalous ones. Methodists, Moonies, Mormons are easily put in the same category and described in similar terms.

This new framework is evident not only in the media’s treatment of non-traditional religious minorities, but also in the public administration institutions and their efforts to control the tendencies perceived as dangerous in the activities of religious communities. I will use as an example a letter of State Security Department of June 15, 2000 that was distributed widely to the public schools in Lithuania by the ministry of Science and Education. This letter is a typical example of the use of a frame that defines the problems between religion and State institutions.

The State Security Department letter was meant to caution public schools in regard to the lectures of Scientologists. After describing the types of lectures offered by the Church of Scientology, the letter concludes with a suggestion “to refuse the help proposed by the non-traditional religious movements and the promotion of non-traditional treatments of drug addiction and related diseases” (SSD letter). It also offers to include in the school programmes information on “non-traditional religious communities, the methods of their activities and the dangers that they raise for the development of healthy and free personality” (SSD letter). Thus, suddenly, the Church of Scientology, one of the most controversial religious movements in Lithuania, is equated with the whole category of “non-traditional religions”, and their activities are described as a priori dangerous in the letter. The Ministry of Science and Education passed on the recommendations of the State Security Department in a like manner: it recommended that any help from the non-traditional religions should be refused regardless of its nature (MSE letter). Neither letter qualifies “some” [non-traditional religious communities]. The frame is automatically imposed without further reflection.

This way of framing the problem also results in the way the possible solutions are formulated (Entman, p. 52). These again are directed towards all non-traditional religions, with only occasional exceptions. The common solution for the problem of sects proposes strengthening official control over all non-traditional religious communities.


There are several reasons for its selection, but the model for differentiating religious communities in Lithuania is primarily designed to protect the society from dangers perceived within a situation of increasing religious plurality. The model attempts to employ categories that are meaningful and respectful towards Lithuanian culture and history but, at the same time, are not legally discriminative. However, the model’s weakness lies in its lack of protective mechanisms in the face of an increasingly differentiated treatment of religious organizations. The legal terms that have been used nevertheless have the side effect of influencing the public discourse on religion. By replacing the religions/sects (cults) dichotomy with a traditional / non-traditional one, many religious communities that are normally accepted in the West as harmless have been placed at a disadvantage.

Table 1. Comparative chart of the four drafts of LRCA

  Draft of 1990 Draft of 1992 Draft of 1993 Draft of 1995 (adopted)
Equality of people All equal before the law All equal before the law All equal before the law All equal before the law
Equality of religious communities All equal before the law. The State should not set any privileges for or discriminate against any religious association Two levels: State recognizes as traditional nine religious confessions; Other; Two levels: State recognized (including traditional) and other (non-traditional) Same as 1993 draft;
Requirements for State recognition No State recognition No way to be recognized 25 years of activities in Lith., being a part of historical, spiritual, social heritage of Lith., public support, compliance with the general moral principles and laws of Lith. 25 years of activities in Lith., public support, compliance with the general moral principles and laws of Lith., [Being a part of historical, spiritual, social heritage of Lith.]
Who decides re. State recognition? –– –– Seimas, upon recommendation from a special commission, composed of known people from the humanitarian and cultural community, representatives of other State recognized communities; Seimas upon the recommendation of the Ministry of Justice [Department of Religious Affairs]
State support All can receive State support All can receive State support; Traditional can use State run media All (especially State recognized) can receive State support; State recognized can also use State run media All can receive State support[4]
Religious instruction inPublic Schools Possible for all religious communities Only for traditional religions Only for State recognized religions Same as 1993 draft
Registration Registration unnecessary Same as 1990 draft By implication, registration unnecessary Same as 1993 draft
Initial registration requirements of membership 3 persons can form a religious community, that could gain legal person rights Traditional: ARE legal persons Other: 300 members in Lithuania Traditional: ARE legal persons Other: 7 members in a local community Traditional: ARE legal persons Other: 15 members in a local community
Terms of investigation before registration Must be registered in30-45 days from the submission of the documents Other religious associations be registered in 45 days from the submission of the documents Other religious associations be registered in 6 months from the submission of the documents Same as 1993 draft
Denial of registration If the documents are not proper If the documents are not proper (Other only) Same as 1992 draft If the documents are not proper or the activities violate human rights and public order (Other only)
Liquidating a religious community If the religious community violates the law, by the decision of the court, upon the request of the prosecutor general If the religious community violates the law, by the decision of the court, upon the request of a prosecutor or the registering institution; before going to court the community has to be warned; termination of activities only after the suspension period of 3 months, if violations are not corrected. Same as 1992 draft except for suspension period – extended to 6 months. Same as 1993 draft

Table 2. Religious communities in Lithuania, 1999

Weekly attendance
Roman Catholics 3,210,000 (70 percent of the population) 550,000 (14-16 percent of the population) 688
Russian Orthodox 180,000 5,000 31
Old Believers 50,000 1,500-2,000 27
Lutherans 30,000 3,000 48
Reformed 11,000 400-500 8
New Apostolic Church 5,600 4,000 45
Muslims 5,000 500 5
Jews <5,000 200-300 6
Word of Faith 2,800 3,500 56
Jehovah's Witnesses 2,200 2,500 18
Pentecostals (all) 1,800 2,000 38
Baptists (all) 1,100 1,300 32
Adventists 1,000 600 21
Eastern Rite Catholics 900 ? 5
Mormons 450 300-400 3
Hare Krishna 300 (?) 200-300 12
Methodists 220 250-300 6
Buddhists 200 (?) 200 (?) 7
Nondenominational 140 250 3


[MSE letter] “Regarding the Activities of Non-Traditional Religious communities”. A letter of the Ministry of Science and Education of the Republic of Lithuania to the Municipal Education Chapters, No. 15-15-1587, dated July 5, 2000.

[SSD letter] “Regarding the Lectures of Scientologists at Schools”. A letter of State Security Department of the Republic of Lithuania to the Ministry of Science and Education, No. 10-116T-329, dated June 15, 2000.

“Regulations of Religious Enterprises”, approved by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania on 28 July 1976.

Ališauskas [interview], Vytautas. Personal interview on April 9, 2001.

Aliulis, Vaclovas, MIC, Kun.. Dėl religinių bendrijų įstatymo. Tiesa, 1993 No. 229 (November 25) p. 5. (Aliulis)

Aliulis [interview], Vaclovas, MIC. Personal interview on April 9, 2001.

Baltušytė [interview], Alberta. Ar tikrai “Minties, tikėjimo ir sąžinės laisvė nevaržoma”? Tiesa, 1993 No. 40 (March 3) p. 6.

Baltušytė, Alberta. Personal interview on February 15, 2001.

Entman, Robert M. “Framing: Toward Clarification of a Fractured Paradigm.” Journal of Communication, 1993 No. 43940, pp. 51-58. Quoted in: Schön 2001, p.1.

Gamson, William A. and Andre Modigliani. “The Changing Culture of Affirmative Action.” In: Research in Political Sociology. Edited by Richard Braungart. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1987, pp. 137-177. Quoted in: Schön 2001, p.1.

Jasiulytė, Ramunė. “Ar bus įstatymu įtvirtinta sąžinės laisvė Lietuvoje?” Bažnyčios naujienos, 1995, No. 10 (May issue), pp. 1 & 4.

Jockus, Arvydas. “Ar Lietuva bus pasaulietinė valstybė. Lietuvos Aidas”, November 23, 1993.

Jurkūnaitė, Gema. Ką gins religinių bendrijų įstatymas. Tiesa, October 23,1993.

[LRCA draft of 1992] Lietuvos Respublikos religinių bendrijų įstatymas. Draft of June 29, 1992.

[LRCA draft of 1993] Lietuvos Respublikos religinių bendrijų įstatymas. Draft of June 7, 1993.

[LRCA draft of 1990] Lietuvos Respublikos religinių bendrijų įstatymas. Draft of November 1990.

[LRCA of 1995] Lietuvos Respublikos religinių bendruomenių ir bendrijų įstatymas. October 4, 1995, No. I-1057. Valstybės žinios, 1995, No. 89-1985; Amendments are published in Valstybės žinios 1997, No. 66-1618.

Navickas, Andrius. “Norėtam, kad įstatymas patenkintų visas puses [interview with Arūnas Peškaitis]”. Apžvalga, 1999 Nr.4 (April),

Peškaitis, Arūnas. “Religinių bendrijų veiklos įstatymas: ieškojimų kelias nuo nesusikalbėjimo iki garantijų žmogui laisvai pasirinkti”. Lietuvos rytas, 1993 No. 223 (November 17) p. 6.

Schön, Brigitte. “Framing Effects in the Coverage of Scientology versus Germany: Some Thoughts on the Role of Press and Scholars.” Marburg Journal of Religion, 2001 No. 1, pp. 1-8.

Vaišvilaitė, Irena. “Differentiation of Religious Communities in Lithuania’s State and Church Relations” [provisional title]. A paper read at an international conference “Law and Religion in Civic Society” in Vilnius, December 7-8, 2000.

Žemulienė, Laima. “Jehovos liudytojos vyras bijo prarasti savo šeimą.” Lietuvos rytas, December 7, 1996.


[1] The other ideal types of State relationship to religion would be “completely incompetent” and “fully competent”, according to Irena Vaišvilaitė.

[2] Actually, a good case could be made that the drafters of the law did not intend that to happen. The legal categories of “State recognized” / “other” might be used as easily. However, the cultural value-laden terms prevailed both in media and further legislation, since the terminology, describing religious communities as “State recognized” / “other” was not well enough stressed and explained in the LRCA.

[3] Here I have in mind first of all the Word of Faith Church – an independent dynamically growing charismatic congregation at that time – though other non-traditional Christian communities joined later. In …. 47 non-traditional Christian churches signed an appeal to the Government on this matter.

[4] State-recognized religious communities can also use State run media in Lithuania today, but that clause has been moved to the law on State run media use.

Donatas Glodenis
This paper was presented in Cesnur/INFORM conference in London, 2001.
Not to be reproduced without a consent of the author.