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Watchtower will take Norwegian defeat to ECHR?

Updated: Mar 7

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Few Norwegian religious communities need to worry after the Jehovah's Witnesses verdict, according to legal expert Vibeke Blaker Strand. The verdict against the Watchtower will not trigger an avalanche of new cases.

Professor Vibeke Blaker Strand believes the Jehovah's Witnesses verdict will stand up in the European Court of Human Rights, unlike human rights expert Dag Øystein Endsjø.

The verdict It is completely in line with the new Religious Communities Act, which involves stricter regulation of religious communities than before, says Vibeke Blaker Strand, professor at the Department of Public Law at the University of Oslo.

Jehovah's Witnesses filed a lawsuit against the state two years ago after being deprived of state subsidies and registration as a religious community. On Monday, the state was acquitted in the Oslo district court.

In Vårt Land(=major Norwegian newsoutlet), human rights expert Øistein Endsjø has been critical of the verdict . He has pointed out that it is particularly serious to deprive a religious community of its registration.

Both Austria and Russia have already been convicted in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) for this, so then Norway can only join the ranks of countries that have been convicted for not recognizing Jehovah's Witnesses as a religious community, he told the newspaper.

Vibeke Blaker Strand disagrees. She believes there is a significant difference between the cases mentioned and the current case in Norway.

Far more invasive in Russia- This judgment does not deprive Jehovah's Witnesses of the opportunity to be a religious community and operate as they wish. This is only about being a publicly registered religious community, which gives them state support and the right to marry, says Blaker Strand.

In countries like Russia, refusal to register is far more invasive, she points out. There, the activity of Jehovah's Witnesses is prohibited.

According to the judgement, the Jehovah's Witnesses' exclusion practice involves "serious violations of the rights and freedoms of others". Through its guidelines and practice for exclusion, the court believes that Jehovah's Witnesses encourage "to shun members who are ostracized or withdraw, so that with few exceptions they are exposed to social isolation from those remaining in the religious community".(CRITICAL: Dag Øistein Endsjø is professor of religious history at the University of Oslo. He does not think the recent judgment will stand up to the European legal system.)

Generous arrangementJehovah's Witnesses were deprived of grants and registration in reference to the new Religious Communities Act which entered into force on 1 January 2021. With the new law, the state wants to give some signals to religious communities, as Blaker Strand sees it.

- In the past, we have had a generous financial support scheme that does not make demands on religious communities, but over time, greater attention has been paid to children's and women's rights. With the new law, the authorities must prevent the state from supporting practices that go too far in violating the rights of individuals.

According to the Religious Communities Act, the state can therefore refuse grants and registration to religious communities that, for example, violate children's rights.

- That Jehovah's Witnesses are stripped of their registration and denied state funding is just a natural consequence of the direction the Storting has taken, she believes.

Religious taste policeThe editor-in-chief of Dagen, Vebjørn Selbekk, has on several occasions spoken out critically about the new religious communities act. He believes it gives the authorities "an unpleasant opportunity to act as religious taste police and then punish religious communities financially".

He therefore believes that the Jehovah's Witnesses case is of fundamental importance:

"It is not difficult to imagine that other religious communities with teachings and practices that are disputed in an increasingly secular society will also be affected," he wrote in a comment a couple of years ago .(…)

Vibeke Blaker Strand understands that the verdict may cause unrest in several religious communities, but believes that very few have cause for concern.

- The case of Jehovah's Witnesses is an extreme point. It is, among other things, about negative social control of children. It is something other than conservative interpretations of religious texts. I therefore do not believe that this will trigger an avalanche of new cases. With this judgment, there should still be room for a conservative religious community.

I think the state has a good case in the ECHRJehovah's Witnesses have not yet decided whether they will appeal the verdict to the Court of Appeal. Should the case end up at the top of the legal system, Blaker Strand believes that the state has a good case.

- It is a judgment that will stand up in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), she says.

She believes the ECHR will look closely at the state's justification for the new Religious Communities Act.

- In working with it, the authorities have discussed the importance of religious freedom for religious communities, but also the rights of individuals. When the legislature has considered what they think weighs most heavily, it takes a lot for the ECHR to verify the state. There are many examples of this.(THE STATE: Government attorney Liv Inger Gjone Gabrielsen (th) was the state's legal representative in the trial. Here together with legal assistant and government lawyer Kristin Hallsjø Aarvik.)

Objective criteriaThe government attorney is satisfied that the district court has acquitted the state.

- The court attaches particular importance to the fact that the exclusion practice violates children's rights. It violates the right to free expression, which is an important part of freedom of religion. The court also believes that the social isolation that comes with the practice of exclusion, or the fear of being exposed to it, poses a risk of serious damage to children's health and well-being, government lawyer Kristin Hallsjø Aarvik writes to Vårt Land.

She highlights several aspects of the judgment that have been upheld, including:

- The court points out that it follows from the ECHR's practice that it is permissible to have arrangements that grant privileges to certain religious communities, as long as these are based on objective criteria, which is the conditions in the Religious Communities Act, she writes.

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