By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
PARIS (Reuters) - Germany's top labor court ruled on Thursday the country's Catholic charity network had the right to fire an employee who quit the Church in protest against the sexual abuse crisis and disputed decisions by ex-Pope Benedict.
The 60-year-old teacher, challenging his 2011 dismissal, had claimed his constitutional right to freedom of opinion trumped the Church's right to employ only Catholics who agreed with the religious mission of their jobs.
He said that his work at Caritas Germany tutoring grade-school children did not deal with religion and that pupils of all faiths were welcome there.
The decision was a victory for the mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, which together are Germany's largest employer after the public sector, against some lay employees and unions challenging the churches' special status in German labor law.
"The defendant's freedom of religion and conscience is certainly very important," the Erfurt-based court said in a statement. But it added that judges could not order the Church to employ someone who had officially given up his membership.
Pope Francis has stressed the religious aspect of Church work, saying soon after his election last month that the Church "may become a charitable NGO" (non-governmental organization) if it does social work and forgets to spread the Gospel.
Church membership is clearly defined in Germany because members must pay a "church tax" that is collected by the state.
A record number of more than 180,000 Catholics left the Church in protest in 2010 after a wave of revelations about the sexual abuse of children by priests over recent decades.
The defendant, who was not named but who was identified in media as Thomas Hellhake from Mannheim, said his decision to leave the Church was also influenced by Benedict's decisions to lift excommunication bans from four ultra-traditionalist bishops, including one notorious Holocaust denier.
He also objected to a Good Friday prayer in Latin that he approved for the use that Jews decried as anti-Semitic because it asks God to "remove the veil from their hearts."
The court decision was based on the loyalty requirement in the defendant's contract and not on the views that led him to leave the Church.
"Anyone who leaves the Church violates the precept of minimal loyalty," Matthias Kopp, spokesman for the Catholic bishops conference, told the Church-run Domradio in Cologne.
(Reporting By Tom Heneghan; Editing by Michael Roddy)