The Jehovah's Witnesses are no longer a "religious community" in Norway
Government officials cited the Jehovah's Witnesses' exclusionary policies as justification for the punishment
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In a move that's both long overdue and shocking, the government of Norway has rescinded the "religious community" status of the Jehovah's Witnesses. While that move won't ban members of the religion from gathering or practicing their faith, it will prevent the JWs from receiving taxpayer-funded subsidies and performing legal marriages. It comes a year after the government warned JW leaders they were heading down this path and cut off their funding.
Norway's odd relationship with religion
Norway, which has a national Church but no longer has a national religion, is one of those countries where religion is literally supported by taxpayers; the more members you have, the more money your preferred religious (or Humanist) organization receives. Any "religious" group with 50 registered members is allowed to apply for state subsidies, and 724 groups received that kind of funding in 2021.
If a religious or philosophical community, or individuals acting on behalf of the community, commits violence or coercion, makes threats, violates children's rights, violates statutory discrimination prohibitions or in other ways seriously violates the rights and freedoms of others, society may be denied grants or grants may be suspended. Grants may also be refused or reduced if society encourages or provides support for violations mentioned in this section.
Religious or philosophical communities that accept grants from states that do not respect the right to freedom of religion or belief may be denied grants.
That makes sense. A group that endorses violence shouldn't get taxpayer money, nor should any group hurting children or violating human rights. Sure, there are atheists who might argue that any form of religious indoctrination is child abuse, but these rules are theoretically limited to things that are irrefutable and not up for debate.
More specifically, groups that receive these subsidies can't force people to remain members. They can't ban interactions with non-members. They can't make children pledge a lifelong commitment to them. While practicing faith is fine, cult-like behavior is not tolerated.
If groups cross those boundaries, then they might lose that government funding.
The Jehovah's Witnesses in Norway
According to the Norwegian government's Ministry of Children and Family Affairs, in 2021, there were 12,686 registered Jehovah's Witnesses in the country. That number meant taxpayers were on the hook to give the Witnesses more than NOK 16 million (roughly $1,778,793 in U.S. dollars) in support. About $140 per member.
In 2021, the government also said it would begin looking into the Witnesses after two former members and a separate (anonymous) whistleblower sent letters explaining that the Witnesses were in violation of the rules. It's not that the JW beliefs were secrets but rather that government officials needed to act deliberately and get their paperwork in order before they could take any kind of action. Those letters got the ball rolling.
Some of those claims were open to debate. For example, the Witnesses say members can't get involved in politics, which is why JWs never vote in elections. One former member argued that since voting in an election could lead to expulsion by the Witnesses—which meant members couldn't interact with you—the No Voting rule qualified as a violation of the law. The Witnesses responded by saying they had every right to set their own policies, and if someone wanted to vote, they were freely deciding to leave the fold. There was nothing coercive about it.
But there were other concerns that the government took very seriously.
The concerns about the Jehovah's Witnesses
The Witnesses engage in the practice of Disfellowshipping. That means former JWs who leave the religion are effectively excommunicated and members are told not to have any interactions with them. (The idea here is that the former members will get so lonely or depressed that they'll eventually come crawling back. There's no shortage of families that have been torn apart because of this.)
The state administrator wrote that Norwegian law requires all religions that receive government subsidies to practice a "right to free withdrawal." If there's a serious obstacle to leaving a religion, that's arguably a violation. Disfellowshipping, the administrator wrote, "can cause members to feel pressured to remain in the faith community."
A similar policy applied to children. If a child in a JW family "makes it a habit to break the moral standards of the Bible and does not repent," the Witnesses teach, they are also to be treated as pariahs. That means a young teenager (baptized or not) who quits the religion is subject to exclusion from religious members.
While their immediate families don't have to kick them out of the house, the state administrator said the Witnesses believe that rebellious child can no longer "have contact with other close family (including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins) or friends." That puts pressure on the child to remain in the fold—a violation of their own rights under the law. ("We consider social isolation as a form of punishment against the child.")
Because of those two "systematic and intentional" offenses, neither of which could be denied by the Witnesses themselves, the state administrator concluded that the Witnesses were not deserving of the subsidies. They were still allowed to practice their faith; they just wouldn't get any taxpayer money for it.
They Jehovah'ed themselves out of nearly $2 million.
The Witnesses said at the time that they planned to appeal the decision:
Fabian Fond at the branch office of Jehovah's Witnesses in Scandinavia, writes in an e-mail to NRK that they are disappointed:
"The decision will be appealed. The appeal process will give us an opportunity to clearly explain why our faith and religious practices fully respect the rights and freedoms of others."
Fond further writes that no one is forced or pressured to become, or continue to be, one of Jehovah's Witnesses:
“It is worth noting that trials in several lands have confirmed the right of Jehovah's Witnesses to exclude persons who choose not to live by the moral standards of the Bible. As a registered religious community in Norway, Jehovah's Witnesses have been eligible to receive government grants for more than 30 years. "
The appeal went nowhere because the JWs had no actual counterpoint. The Witnesses still maintained the right to exclude non-members. What they didn't have is a right to be rewarded for it. For a group of people who want nothing to do with the government, they were incredibly upset over not receiving a government handout.
The decision wasn't unfair, though. The Catholic Church (just to name one example) has its share of problems, too, but if you quit the Church, there's no formal policy in place designed to make you suffer for it. You might have arguments with family members, and you might struggle with the loss of a community with shared beliefs (at least for a while), but the Church itself doesn't go out of its way to make your life worse. Jehovah's Witnesses do.
If nothing else, the move by the Norwegian government would hopefully spur other religious groups to take a fresh look at their own policies. If they wanted access to taxpayer money, they needed to play by the rules.
The latest sanctions against the Jehovah's Witnesses
Now the temporary sanctions against the Jehovah's Witnesses have been made permanent. The state administrator in Oslo and Viken recently revoked the group's official "religious community" status, depriving them of those taxpayer funds and the ability to bless marriages that are accepted by the government. It’s a far more serious sanction than the Witnesses received last year.
... In our opinion, the religious community violates the members' right to freedom of expression. We believe this violates the members' right to freedom of religion. We also believe that they violate children's rights by allowing them to exclude baptized minors, and by encouraging members to socially isolate children who do not follow the religious community's rules.
... We have come to the conclusion that Jehovah's Witnesses violate the members' right to free expression of religious communities and that they violate children's rights. On this background, we have come to the conclusion that the society cannot be registered under the Religious Societies Act. We believe that this corresponds to the provisions of the Religious Communities Act.
In a more formal response, the official explained how the government had taken several steps to give the Witnesses a chance to remedy this problem, but there was never any indication the Witnesses were going to change their policies:
The fact that a religious community violates its members' right to freedom of expression and thus violates the right to freedom of religion is considered particularly serious. The same applies to the negative social control of children, which violates children's human rights protection under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
However, as the preparations for the religious community regulations indicate, the State Administrator must, even in the case of serious violations, check whether the community has taken measures to prevent the violations from continuing.
As mentioned in the letter of December 14, 2022, Jehovah's Witnesses state that practice will not be changed. The organization will therefore not take measures to prevent the conditions that led to refusal.
This means that the conditions are persistent. After the above preparatory work, particularly serious or persistent conditions shall lead to loss of registration.
On this background, we have assessed that the conditions for withdrawing the registration of Jehovah's Witnesses as a registered religious community have been met...
There is still an opportunity to appeal the decision, but again, it's not clear on what grounds the Jehovah's Witnesses have a case. These really are their beliefs. These are their policies. Unless they’re willing to change the rules of their faith, an appeal won’t go anywhere.
Ever since this threat was first issued, conservatives in the country have been making all kinds of slippery slope arguments about this, suggesting the government was just going after religions they didn't like—as if the JW funding decision would lead to future funding bans on religious groups that oppose issues like LGBTQ+ rights. Government officials quickly rejected that stance and reiterated that beliefs were irrelevant; it was the undeniable actions of the Witnesses that mattered and that’s why they weren't going to receive the subsidies. It’s not like Catholics or evangelicals are being targeted here.
That didn’t stop the JW Governing Body from acting like this move was unconstitutional in their latest update.
How this would play in the United States
In the U.S., the IRS prohibits churches from telling people how to vote under a rule called the Johnson Amendment. If they break those rules, they stand to lose their non-profit status, which would be a death blow for many of them. But because the IRS pretty much ignores those violations for a whole host of reasons, we've seen plenty of conservative Christian churches have their cake and eat it too. They get to function like an arm of the Republican Party while receiving all the benefits of a non-profit group. Unless the government enforces its own rules, those rules are worthless.
In Norway, with this decision, the government is making it clear that religious institutions aren't going to get a free pass just because they happen to be religious. The Jehovah's Witnesses deserved to lose their funding. So do any other groups acting in the same awful ways.
It’s about damn time a religious group that breaks rules while receiving benefits for agreeing to those same rules faces some kind of punishment.
The subsidies have unintended consequences
These Norwegian religious subsidies have led to some fascinating (and unintentional) effects, mostly because citizens are now wise to the fact that they don’t need to prop up churches for which they hold no special allegiance. (They still have to pay a church tax, so to speak—which is a very different kind of problem altogether—but less money given to certain institutions means more money for the remaining ones.)
For example, in 2016, the nation's evangelical Lutheran Church launched a website to make it easier to track members and enroll new ones... but that plan backfired after thousands of people used the website to opt out of Church membership altogether, depriving the Church of that government funding. (Considering that roughly 75% of the country were officially members, though, the exodus wasn't all that shocking. They realistically could only go lower.)
There was also a mini-scandal in 2015 when the Catholic Church owed the Norwegian government more than $5 million for “fraudulently registering thousands of people on its membership lists” precisely because they got taxpayer money for that act of manipulation. No wonder that after the Church created an app for members, more than 11,000 Norwegians resigned shortly thereafter because it was simple to remove themselves from the membership rolls.
Those weren't just symbolic acts. The reason so many people actively went through the motions of getting off those membership rolls was because they didn't want the government giving those institutions money in their name. There are plenty of people there (as in the United States) who just keep a Catholic or Lutheran label because their families raised them in those traditions or they simply don't care enough to go through the formal process of changing it. But those subsidies have pushed some people to formally declare themselves not Catholic or not Lutheran. It just shows you how many religious institutions in Norway have financially benefitted from the apathy of many of their own lapsed members.
For now, though, the Jehovah’s Witnesses won’t be receiving any federal benefits. It’s their own fault for making cruelty and manipulation cores of their faith.
As I was preparing this piece, the Jehovah’s Witnesses published a brief notice on their official website saying a Norwegian court had issued a temporary injunction “to stop the government from taking away our registration as a religious community.”
There’s no linked document or explanation of the pause, but this may just be a brief delay before the suspension goes into effect.
(Portions of this article were published earlier. Thanks to @mrfunnysmart for the link)