I. Historical Background
In the 13th century Christianity was accepted in Estonia. The consequence was that the Pope ruled Estonia as highest suzerain and a Church State was established. In the 17th century Sweden ruled Estonia and reformation took place. So the Catholic Church did not exist any more in Estonia. The country got a State Church which may be better described as Land Church. With the Russian Rule in the beginning of the 18th century no fundamental changes took place. In 1918 Estonia became independent and the Constitution determined the strict separation of State and Church. With the Soviet occupation in 1940 all religious communities were totally controlled by the State and USSR law was applied. The development to an independent state in the 1990s led to a new regulation concerning religious communities and guaranteed the freedom of religion. Nevertheless Estonia remains a country in transition.
II. Social Facts
Estonia’s religious picture is influenced by the Soviet occupation and secularisation. Estonia remains a Christian shaped country, but only 23 % of the population are members of Christian Churches. 11 % of the population belongs to the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church and about 10 % to the Orthodox Church. Other religious communities are much smaller (Roman Catholics, Baptists, Jews, Methodists, Muslims, Buddhists and others).
III. Basic categories of the system
In Estonia there does not exist a state church in constitutional terms (Article 40). The consequence is not a strict separation of State and Church, but a co-operation with the Estonian Evangelical Church. One form of cooperation not only with the Estonian Evangelical Church but also with other Christian Churches is the Estonian Council of Churches, consisting of 10 Christian Churches. The Council works together with the State in religious freedom questions.
IV. Cultural and social exercise of functions
Most of the schools in Estonia are public schools. Religious education in those schools is voluntary and non-confessional. With the amendment to the Education Act a school is legally liable to offer religious education if at least fifteen pupils wish it. There are still debates about the question whether religious education should be compulsory for all pupils.
The University of Tartu offers theological studies since the re-opening in 1991. The Faculty of Theology works together with the Theological Institute of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in order to authorise graduates to serve as church ministers.
The Broadcasting Act allows broadcasting organisations to decide freely upon the content of their programmes. The public broadcasting organisations have an agreement with the Estonian Council of Churches. This makes it possible for members of the Council to provide programmes on religious issues. Private radio stations broadcast mainly confessional programmes.
There are also a lot of religious organisations distributing own newspapers.
V. Legal foundations
The legal sources describing the relationship between Church and State are national law (the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia and acts which regulate the freedom of religion), international law and the decisions of the courts about fundamental freedom and rights.
Article 40 of the Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion. More and more important are formal agreements negotiated directly between the Government and religious institutions (for example the agreement between the State and the Holy See for the Roman Catholic Church).
The law allows religious marriage under certain conditions. Only a clergyman with an authorisation from the Ministry of Internal Affairs can perform civil marriages.
There are no direct church taxes, but the churches are supported in other ways indirectly by the State. Religious associations are for example automatically exempt from income tax. There are also some reductions of the Value Added Tax (VAT) for religious associations and they are exempt from land (property) tax. The Estonian Council of Churches is also supported by the State through funds.