Photo: The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Norwegian remote translation office and theocratic school facility, which served as the Norway branch office until 2012 (when the work in Norway came under the supervision of the Scandinavia branch, located in Denmark). Source: jw.org.
NORWAY: A trial about the State’s intrusion into religious beliefs
Willy Fautré, Director of Human Rights Without Frontiers
HRWF (08.01.2024) – From 8 to 19 January 2024, the District Court of Oslo will examine the de-registration case of Jehovah’s Witnesses on the grounds of their exclusion policy of members, also named disfellowshipping.
The case follows the government’s denial of the Witnesses’ application for state grants in 2021, which they had received for 30 years. These subsidies are not “gifts” but allocations provided for by the Norwegian Constitution and laws to respect the principle of equality between religious communities, whatever their size, since the Church of Norway (Lutheran) is supported by taxpayers’ money.
A timeline in short
On 27 January 2022, the County Governor (Statsforvalteren) for Oslo and Viken, Ms. Valgerd Svarstad-Haugland, issued an administrative decision denying the state subsidy for the year 2021 to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The starting point of the legal saga was a report addressed to the Ministry of Children and Family Affairs by Prof. Furuli, a professor emeritus of Semitic languages at the University of Oslo and a disfellowshipped Jehovah’s Witness himself, in connection with the exclusion and expulsion policy of members. The question was raised about how the report should be assessed with regard to the registration of and state subsidies to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Noteworthy is that Prof. Furuli supported a first decision in August 2021 by a Norwegian court “annulling” an ecclesiastical decision where the Jehovah’s Witnesses disfellowshipped one of their female members, Gry Helen Nygård. However, this decision was reversed on 9 July 2021 by the Borgarting Court of Appeal and on 3 May 2022 by the Supreme Court of Norway with a unanimous decision (5-0). Nygård then took her case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which rejected her complaint without giving any further reason, which is common when the ECHR regards complaints as clearly unfounded.
Nygård has also taken her case to a different court, the media, and has found a sympathetic ear from people hostile to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
On 25 October 2022, the County Governor of Oslo and Viken, Ms. Valgerd Svarstad-Haugland, demanded via letter that Jehovah’s Witnesses change their religious beliefs and practices, otherwise they would lose their registration. In her letter, she did not refer to any court decisions or complaints to the police, child welfare authorities, or other relevant authorities. The Witnesses proposed to meet her but she declined their request.
On 22 December 2022, the County Governor revoked their registration as a religious community.
On 30 December 2022, Oslo District Court granted Jehovah’s Witnesses a temporary injunction suspending the County Governor’s decision and pending litigation.
On 26 April 2023, the District Court lifted the injunction in response to a request by the Ministry of Children and Families. The decision was appealed.
On 30 June 2023, the Borgarting Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal on technical grounds.
What are and can be the consequences of the de-registration?
News reports about the State revoking the Witnesses’ registration stigmatize the nearly 12,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses of Norway.
The negative media coverage has led to considerable increase in verbal abuse, physical assaults, as well as vandalism of places of worship (e.g., offensive graffiti, arson).
The community is losing the State’s recognition of their religious marriages as well as some $1.6 million (USD) in government grants.
The State intrusion into the beliefs and practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses that is being examined in Norway can have a very negative impact on other religious communities in Norway and other countries.
The ruling against that religious community “can have consequences for a whole range of other faiths,” stated Dag Øistein Endsjø, professor of Religious studies at the University of Oslo, in an interview published in the newspaper Vårt Land .
In an editorial, Vebjørn Selbekk (editor-in-chief of the respected Norwegian Christian newspaper, Dagen) expressed fear that the County Governor may go on and sanction other religious groups whose beliefs and practices she happens to disagree with. He regarded the decision as anti-democratic, and expressed the hope that the Jehovah’s Witnesses will “emerge victorious from the upcoming court process.” Noteworthy is that Mr. Selbekk is not a Jehovah’s Witness and is critical of their theology.
Monsignor Torbjørn Olsen, the Secretary of the Catholic Norwegian Bishops’ Conference, wrote in a Norwegian media: “If the denial of registration stands, it may soon only be a matter of time before a number of other communities with ‘incorrect’ positions will be deregistered.”
Last but not least, a collateral damage is also the reaction of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs whose spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, decried the hypocrisy of Norway which deregistered Jehovah’s Witnesses, while criticizing Moscow at international forums for banning that same religious community. She also added that Russia’s nationwide ban is hereby legitimized by the decision in Norway.