There are more than 500,000 employees of the Churches, their subdivisions and the institutions (mostly charitable) associated closely or less closely with their religious aims. Owing to the special legal status of the Religious Communities , as compared with the regulations applicable for secular employers these employees are covered by a modified form of labour law which is extensively accommodated to the specific interests of ecclesiastical employers, in many respects at the expense of their employees' interests. Holders of ecclesiastical office are not covered by labour law at all, and employees of employers associated with the Churches lack the protection of important sections of collective labour law. Forms of industrial action are regarded as irreconcilable with the special nature of ecclesiastical employment and therefore as unlawful. The only allowance made for the freedom of association of employees is the fact that the representation of their interests by trade unions is permitted, i.e. employees of ecclesiastical establishments may join trade unions and the unions are able to have a presence within the establishment at least through their members who are employed there. However, they have scarcely any means of pursuing these members' interests. The conclusion of collective agreements is rejected totally by the Roman Catholic Church and extensively by the Protestant Church. Ecclesiastical establishments are exempt from the application of the Works Constitution Act. Instead of the normal mechanisms for adjusting employer/employee interests under collective law, both of the major Churches have introduced systems of their own. For Protestant establishments, labour law committees jointly composed of employer and employee representatives issue guidelines on the framing of contracts of employment. For Roman Catholic establishments, a similar function is performed by committees for the regulation of employment contract law. For the purposes of employee representation as under the works constitution , ecclesiastical staff representation bodies have been introduced in both Churches.

Individual labour law is in principle binding on ecclesiastical employers as it is on other employers. Modifications are, however, introduced in instances which the Churches themselves perceive as touching on their religious identity. This is a particular problem if employees' conduct within the employment context, but above all outside it, is contrary to the teachings of the Church without this having any direct connection with their actual work. According to the Federal Constitutional Court , which strongly favours the Churches in its rulings, in such cases the latter's interests must be protected largely to the exclusion of employees' rights. Consequently, employees whose religious or moral views differ from official Church doctrine have to face the likelihood of being dismissed if they let their opinions be known.

Please note: the European industrial relations glossaries were compiled between 1991 and 2003 and are not updated. For current material see the European industrial relations dictionary.