Did Jehovah’s Witnesses Lie?

Jehovah's Witnesses neutrality stance

Jehovah’s Witnesses receive NOK 14 million ($1.5 million) from the Norwegian government each year. In 2019 they risked losing it all because of their treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses who publicly vote during elections. They wrote a letter to the Norwegian government explaining their stance on disfellowshipping and shunning. Here is a translation. Did they lie? You be the judge.

JEHOVAS VITNER
AVDELINGSKONTORET I SKANDINAVIA

18 October 2019

TO THE STATE OF OSLO AND VIKEN
PB 325
1502 MOSS

Answers to your letter regarding the assessment of state aid to Jehovah’s Witnesses

We received your letter dated September 11, 2019, which arrived on September 13, 2019, asking for our comments on recent news articles about Jehovah’s Witnesses’ stance on voting in political elections. You also ask us to comment on a letter you have received from the Ministry of Children and Family Affairs. We appreciate the opportunity to correct some of the misinformation presented in various news media, and to explain our biblical view on political neutrality.

Jehovah’s Witnesses value the fundamental rights we have in Norway, including the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. As Christians, we respect that others have the right to vote and the right not to. We do not agitate against elections, and we cooperate with elected authorities. But each Jehovah’s Witnesses makes a personal decision to have a strictly neutral attitude to the politics of the nations. They believe that political neutrality is something the Bible commands. (Matthew 22:21; John 15:19; 18:36; 2 Corinthians 5:20; 1 Peter 3:16) More information about our religious reasons for not voting in political elections can be found on our official website at
https://www.jw.org/en/library/books/gods-love/flag-salute-voting-civilian-service/

The decision to be neutral in political matters is a personal decision that each one makes based on their understanding of the Bible and their conscience. If one in our religious community chooses to participate in a political election by voting, Jehovah’s Witnesses will see it as the person chosing to leave the faith community. Therefore, a brief statement will be given in the congregation that reads: “[The person’s name] is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” But the person is still welcome to attend religious services, sit anywhere he or she wants in the Kingdom Hall (Jehovah’s Witnesses Meeting Room), and join in singing religious hymns. In addition, he or she can also talk to and interact with their closest family members as normal (the only religious restriction is to discuss issues of a religious / religious nature). (Italics ours)

The religious stand of Jehovah’s Witnesses in terms of political neutrality does not in any way conflict with the basic values of a democratic society. On the contrary, when this question has arisen, the courts have consistently ruled that the religious views of Jehovah’s Witnesses are consistent with democratic values. This is confirmed by the following decisions in Italy, Germany and Sweden:

Supreme Administrative Court (Consiglio di Stato), Italy (July 30, 1986: Approval of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Application for Registration as a Religious Society): “The reporting Administration has expressed a favourable opinion, both on the recognition of the juridical personality and on the acceptance of the donation on behalf of the newly-formed association by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. With regard to the first aspect, the Ministry of the Interior has pointed out that in the constitutional act and in the Statute of the association that is applying there are no regulations in contrast with the provisions of civil law, while as far as the negative view of Jehovah’s Witnesses with regard to blood transfusions, the right-duty to vote and military service (or alternative service), the Ministry observes that while such are manifestations of religious faith, they are, in any case, the result of free and individual choice. … The fact that the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses is among ‘admitted’ religions can certainly not be repealed on the grounds of doubt. It should suffice to mention that this religious confession has been active in Italy for many years without having given rise to concern on the part of the Administration … For the above reasons outlined in the preceding considerations, the Department gives a favourable opinion.”

Opinion No., 1390/86, 30 July 1986, pp, 2, 5, 9

Constitutional Court, Germany (December 19, 2000: Concerning an application from Jehovah’s Witnesses to be registered as a statutory company): “[T]he plaintiff’s abstaining from voting in government elections does not affect the democratic principle in its normative substance but its actual basic requirements. The plaintiff is neither politically supported nor intentionally directed at weakening democracy. The plaintiff does not intend to supplant democracy with another form of government. It neither designs nor follows any political program; to the contrary it pursues an apolitical concept of life. The plaintiff’s efforts are not directed against the liberal constitutional system, but towards a life beyond the political community in ‘Christian neutrality’.”

Jehovas Zeugen v. State of Berlin, no. 2 BvR 1500/97, 19 December 2000, § 102

The Supreme Administrative Court, Sweden (November 8, 2013: Regarding an application from Jehovah’s Witnesses to receive state aid as a recognized religious community): “At the same time, it is true that citizens can be expected to take advantage of the opportunities to participate in their country’s government that is open to them, but that they also have the right to refrain from doing so. In Sweden, the right to vote is just a right and not an obligation. Respect for religious freedom requires that the assessment of whether a religious community can be considered to contribute to maintaining and strengthening the basic values ​​on which society rests does not include any closer examination and evaluation of the religious doctrine of society. That this must not be done has been explicitly emphasized in the law’s preparatory work (prop. 1998/99: 124 p. 64). It is clear from the case-law of the European Court of Justice that, as provided for in Article 9 (1) of the Convention, the state’s obligation to remain neutral and impartial is of paramount importance in assessments of this kind. In light of what has been said, the provision in section 3 of the Act on Support to Religious Communities cannot give it the meaning that a society whose religious doctrine means that its members are invited to refrain from participating in general elections without, for that reason, counteracting the democratic rule of law. , cannot be considered to fulfill the requirement for entitlement to state grants. The Supreme Administrative Court finds that the government’s decision to reject Jehovah’s Witnesses application lacks the law. The decision must therefore be set aside.”

Case No. 4496-12, pages 10-11

Another factor is that most (if not all) religious communities that receive state aid in Norway establish beliefs and practices that the individual in the religious community must adhere to, including beliefs and practices that others may view as undemocratic.

In Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow v. Russia, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) stated in paragraphs 111, 118 and 144:

“It is a known fact that a religious way of life requires from its followers both abidance by religious rules and self-dedication to religious work that can take up a significant portion of the believer’s time and sometimes assume such extreme forms as monasticism, which is common to many Christian denominations and, to a lesser extent, also to Buddhism and Hinduism.

… it is a common feature of many religions that they determine doctrinal standards of behaviour by which their followers must abide in their private lives. Religious precepts that govern the conduct of adherents in private life include, for instance, regular attendance at church services, performance of certain rituals such as communion or confession, observance of religious holidays or abstention from work on specific days of the week (see Casimiro and Ferreira v. Luxembourg (dec.), no. 44888/98, 27 April 1999, and Konttinen v. Finland, no. 24949/94, Commission decision of 3 December 1996), wearing specific clothes (see Leyla Şahin v. Turkey [GC], no. 44774/98, § 78, ECHR 2005-XI, and Phull v. France (dec.), no. 35753/03, 11 January 2005), dietary restrictions (see Cha’are Shalom Ve Tsedek v. France [GC], no. 27417/95, § 73, ECHR 2000-VII), and many others. Jehovah’s Witnesses’ regulations on allowing sufficient time for religious activities and abstaining from celebrating non-Witnesses or secular events were in that sense not fundamentally different from similar limitations that other religions impose on their followers’ private lives. By obeying these precepts in their daily lives, believers manifested their desire to comply strictly with the religious beliefs they professed and their liberty to do so was guaranteed by Article 9 of the Convention in the form of the freedom to manifest religion, alone and in private.

… [other religious practices to which others might object include] the practice of fasting, which is particularly long and strict in Orthodox Christianity, or circumcision practised on Jewish or Muslim male babies.”

Regarding all different religious practices, the ECHR concluded in Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow v. Russia, as referred to above, with the following in paragraph 141: “… the State does not have the right under the Convention to decide what beliefs may or may not be taught because the right to freedom of religion as guaranteed under the Convention excludes any discretion on the part of the State to determine whether religious beliefs or the means used to express such beliefs are legitimate (see Manoussakis and Others, cited above, § 47).”

The ECHR’s Grand Chamber has also stated that Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees the right of religious communities to the following: “to react, in accordance with their own rules and interests, to any dissident movements emerging within them that might pose a threat to their cohesion, image or unity”. This includes the right to decide that a person can no longer belong to the faith community if he or she follows a particular course of action (Fernandez Martinez v. Spain [GC], no. 56030/07, § 128, ECHR 2014; Sindicatul “Păstorul cel Bun” v. Romania [GC], no. 2330/09, §§ 137 and 165, ECHR 2013 [extracts]).

So, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ sincere belief about political neutrality does not at all conflict with fundamental values, but is a fundamental right that is protected both by the Norwegian Constitution and by the European Convention on Human Rights.

We hope it is clear from what is stated in this letter that we fully respect a person’s fundamental right to make a decision on political neutrality, and that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not in any way exert pressure or use threats to intimidate anyone from voting. (Italics ours)

With best regards

Kåre Sæterhaug
Board Member

Dag-Erik Kristoffersen
Public Information Desk

Jehovah’s Witnesses’ doctrine on shunning

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