Yes to Religious Freedom, but Not at Any Price

Yes to Religious Freedom, but not at any price

If religious groups should expect government funding, they must tolerate government interference.

Originally published on Vartland by Yngvil Groth Farsund on Nov 26, 2019

Many have argued that Jehovah’s Witnesses should lose state aid because of discriminatory practices against members.

Many have advocated to take away the state grant from Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious communities who practice discrimination and intolerance. The county governor in Oslo and Viken stated in his statement on 18 November that there is no basis for this under current legislation. The Norwegian Parliament’s proposal for a new religious law may change this. Those who oppose, for the most part, refer to religious freedom. But in this context, what religious freedom needs protecting?

Freedom of religion is not absolute

Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is a fundamental human right, and implies that everyone should have the right to have and change beliefs, to express their beliefs through worship, teaching, practice and observance, and the right not to have such beliefs. Human rights are a cornerstone of Norwegian values, enacted through human rights law and a central part of the Constitution.

It is worth noting that religious freedom is not absolute. Under certain conditions, freedom of religion can be interfered with when the purpose is to protect the rights and freedoms of others. However, the crux of this matter is not whether religious communities should be allowed to practice their religion in the way they do. The essence is whether the state should support the practice with a significant public subsidy.

The new law defines the content in more detail

The state is not obliged to provide grants to religious groups, but as long as it does, it is obliged to distribute the grants in a way that does not discriminate between different faiths. Under current law, the state can deprive a religious community of the grant if the practice of the religious community is contrary to law and morality. This shows that depriving the grant does not in itself constitute an unacceptable interference with religious freedom, as long as it is done in a non-discriminatory way.

When the County Governor of Oslo and Viken recently noted that the current legislation did not for the basis to deprive the Jehovah’s Witnesses of the State subsidy, it is largely because the content of the law and morality are vague, tricky to specify, and change along with society perception . The Norwegian Parliament’s proposal for a new religious law should define the content more closely. According to the proposal, the state can, among other things, withhold the grant if the religious group violates the rights of children, violates statutory discrimination prohibitions or in other ways seriously violates the rights and freedoms of others.

Must withstand state interference

This proposed amendment to the legislation may be perceived as the state interfering in the internal religious affairs of those religious groups it affects. And it may well be that it does. But if religious groups can expect state funding, they must tolerate state interference.

The question is not so much about the individual faith groups as it is about the ethical principles that should facilitate the state’s use of tax-payer’s money. It is not reasonable for the government grant is provided indiscriminately and regardless of what kind of practice the grant helps support. The state has a duty to ensure that religious freedom is respected in parallel with other fundamental human rights. The Norwegian state should therefore not fund schemes that are based on religious freedom, but which are in practice a system of discrimination and intolerance.

In its place

The public subsidy is basically a contribution from the Norwegian population. Therefore, it is appropriate that the contribution comes on the basis of Norwegian values. In Norwegian values, all persons must be equal and respected. There should be room for religious freedom, but not at any price. Where the state provides financial support to an organization, the state may require some influence on the organization’s political processes. If the organization does not want to comply with the state’s guidelines, it must seek financial support elsewhere.

Featured Photo: Erlend Berge

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