WASHINGTON (BP) -- The Czech Republic's highest court has upheld a government plan to pay billions of dollars to religious groups in compensation for property seized by the country's former communist regime.

The ruling was a defeat for the country's vocal atheist population but a victory for its churches. Catholic, Protestant and Jewish congregations have been fighting since the 1989 fall of communism to get back such assets as buildings, farms and woodlands that have remained in the state's hands.

The country's 16 Christian groups and the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Czech Republic will receive more than $3 billion over the next 30 years. They will also get 56 percent of their former property, now held by the state, worth $3.8 billion. The Catholic Church will receive most of the money and property in the deal.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas welcomed the ruling, saying it was the right decision.

The republic's Constitutional Court rejected an appeal by the left-wing opposition. The plan is highly controversial in a country with one of Europe's highest concentrations of atheists. According to the Washington Post and Pitzer College sociologist Phil Zuckerman, more than 50 percent of Czechs claim not to believe in a god and as many as 30 percent identify as "convinced atheists."

Lawmakers struggled to agree on basic terms as they spent time and money reviewing 70-year-old government records. In a heated public campaign, the Social Democrats party stood against the "handout." As reported in the Prague Post in 2012, one Social Democrat, Jan Babor, described the draft bill for compensation as "against the spirit of our constitution, because a democratic secular state should not tie itself to any church."

But in many ways, the republic already was tied to churches, paying expenses like salaries for priests. When communists seized power in 1948 in what was then Czechoslovakia, they confiscated all property owned by churches and persecuted many priests. Churches were allowed to function only under the totalitarian state's strict control, and priests' salaries were paid by the state. Under the restitution plan, the state will gradually stop covering church expenses during the next 17 years.

Prague Archbishop Dominik Duka celebrated the ruling as completing efforts to find a "just" solution to the 41 years of repression during the communist era.

The republic is the last country in the region to provide restitution. Full restitution passed in Poland 1989, Hungary in 1991 and 1998, and Slovakia in 1993. Russia even passed a measure in 2010.

The Czech Republic did return about 170 buildings to the church in 1991, Duka told the Prague Post, but withheld property like land and additional buildings with potential for income.

Reprinted by permission from WORLD News Service, an affiliate of WORLD Magazine (www.worldmag.com) based in Asheville, N.C.

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