PARIS (Reuters) - Germany's main churches and a union that represents their employees have both claimed victory after the Federal Labour Court issued a Solomonic decision on whether church employees are allowed to strike.
The Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches greeted the ruling as an endorsement of their system of resolving wage disputes through mediation, while the union said it confirmed church workers had the right to industrial action.
German media reflected the split on Wednesday. "Church can ban strikes," read the headline in the conservative daily Die Welt. "Church workers can strike," wrote the liberal Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
The two churches, with a combined total of about 1.3 million staff in schools, hospitals and social services, are effectively the largest employer in Germany after the public sector.
The German constitution guarantees them freedom to manage their internal affairs, which they have used to bar strikes in their ranks and favor mediation of wage disputes, a method they say is more compatible with Christian teaching.
"There cannot be strikes against carrying out the mission of our Lord," Peter Neher, head of the Catholic charity organization Caritas, told German radio.
The service sector union Ver.di, Germany's second largest, accuses the churches of undercutting employees' wages by outsourcing many services in recent years to save money.
It brought cases against Protestant social services for forbidding strikes in 2009 and two lower courts involved came to opposite conclusions. That brought the issue on appeal to the Federal Labour Court in Erfurt but did not resolve it.
"Limiting the churches' right to self-determination by a strike is not illegal in all cases," the court decision said.
At the same time, it said that strikes "severely limit social ministries and damage the credibility of the church." It advised the churches to allow the unions more rights in the mediation process or risk strikes.
Before the court's decision was announced, its chief judge said the dispute would probably not be finally decided in Erfurt, or at Germany's Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, but in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
The churches' networks of social services have become so large and complex that Pope Benedict warned Catholic service workers last year against treating their jobs as if they were in any other bureaucracy rather than part of the Church's mission.
His call to avoid what he called "worldliness", issued at the end of a visit to his homeland, left German Catholic leaders asking whether he meant they should pull out of social services. They concluded he was not arguing for such a radical step.
Reporting By Tom Heneghan; Editing by Robin Pomeroy