The Russian Constitutional Court today rejected a prosecutor's attempt to shut down a religious congregation under a controversial 1997 law, but at the same time upheld the government's authority to limit the activity of religious faiths, which has been widely criticized in the West.

The decision, which came in a closely watched test case, could make it more difficult to ban some local religious groups. Implementation of the law has been monitored by many groups that fear it could lead to a weakening of Russia's constitutional pledge not to establish an official state religion.

The case decided today arose when the prosecutor in the town of Yaroslavl, northeast of Moscow, attempted to close the local branch of the Jehovah's Witnesses on grounds that the congregation did not have documents showing that it existed more than 15 years ago, as the law requires.

The congregation claimed it did not need the documents because the Jehovah's Witnesses had been certified in Moscow as meeting the requirement. The group says it has operated for more than 50 years in Russia, but in Soviet times was hidden to avoid persecution by the authorities.

The Constitutional Court backed the Jehovah's Witnesses, who were joined in the case by a Pentecostal congregation from Khakassia. "This is a victory without a doubt," said Arthur Leontiev, a lawyer for the group. "This is the first step in this direction."

Under the 1997 law, a much-criticized provision created a two-tier system for recognizing religions in Russia. Those in the first tier are defined as the "traditional" Russian faiths, including Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, and enjoy full rights. But "nontraditional" faiths in the second tier may have their activities severely limited.

These second-level groups must prove they have been on Russian soil for 15 years. If not, they cannot set up educational institutions, produce or distribute religious literature or invite foreign citizens into the country. Critics have charged that this second-class category was created at the behest of the Russian Orthodox Church, which, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, wanted to minimize proselytizing by outside religions.

By some estimates there are more than 10,000 small religious groups that could be affected by these restrictions, which have not yet been fully enforced.

In today's decision, the court upheld the government's right to impose restrictions on religion. The court said restrictions would have to be in the interest of public health, safety, order or morals, and protection of the rights of other persons, according to a summary provided by Russian news agencies.

The court also supported the state's right to set barriers before groups can be officially registered, in order to prevent "the legalization of sects that violate human rights and commit unlawful and criminal deeds." The court also sanctioned the government "to obstruct missionary activities," in particular if they are "accompanied by offers of material or social benefits with the purpose of recruiting new members for a church, the unlawful influence on people in need or distress, psychological pressure or threat of force," the Interfax news agency quoted the court as saying.

However, the court did not explicitly reevaluate the two-tiered religion system, which may be challenged in future cases.

Last April, Russia re-registered the national office of the Jehovah's Witnesses. But many other smaller groups are not registered and their rights are restricted.