Karlsruhe, Germany - Germany's highest court on Tuesday overturned a previous ruling denying official status to the Jehovah's Witnesses and ordered a new study of their bid to be a recognised religious body.
The Federal Constitutional Court quashed a 1997 ruling that the U.S.-founded Christian sect should be refused the status of a public body because it forbade its members from taking part in political elections.
"A religious group should be judged not by its beliefs but by its behaviour," said Judge Winfried Hassemer, explaining his ruling.
Under German law, churches granted public body status can levy centrally collected taxes from their members, are themselves exempt from most forms of taxation and have the right to representation on state radio and television management panels.
The Jehovah's Witnesses, who have around 192,000 members in Germany, have been in the country for about 100 years and were severely persecuted during Hitler's Third Reich.
Church rules bar members from political activities, military conscription and accepting blood transfusions.
"We walked out of the courtroom happy with this ruling," said Gajus Glockentin, the Witnesses' legal representative.
"We are confident we shall get a different ruling now from the Federal Administrative Court," he added. The Administrative Court earlier turned down the group's request for public body status and must now reassess the case.
The 1997 ruling had said the group's ban on participation in elections was a sign of "insufficient loyalty" to the German state. In its appeal, the church argued that loyalty to the state was not a precondition for that status.
The Constitutional Court said the church's application for such status should be reassessed using the criterion of whether its members were able freely to enjoy the rights guaranteed them under the German constitution.
The Nazis smashed democratic checks and balances to help them take power in the 1930s, and Germany has been sensitive to anything perceived as a threat to its carefully constructed postwar constitution.
German restrictions on the California-based Church of Scientology -- whose members are barred from government jobs in some regions -- have been criticised by U.S. celebrities and business leaders who are members of the church.
German authorities say that Scientology masquerades as a religion but exploits its members to raise money.