The non-profit organization behind the Jehovah’s Witnesses is guilty of inciting discrimination and hatred or violence against ex-members who have left the community. The organization will be fined 96,000 euros, the Ghent criminal court ruled on Tuesday.
Originally published on Nieuwsblad on March 16, 2021
A former member of Jehovah’s Witnesses went to the Ghent public prosecutor’s office in 2015 for slander, defamation, insults, and violations of the discrimination law. He stated that once the members had left the group, they would be ostracized and completely socially isolated at the command of the organization. The Ghent Public Prosecutor’s Office subpoenaed the Jehovah’s Witnesses on four charges: inciting discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs against a person and against a group, and incitement to hatred or violence against a person and against a group.
The Interfederal Equal Opportunities Center Unia and about fifteen persons have filed civil party claims. The victims’ lawyers emphasized the far-reaching consequences of the “shunning policy” or exclusion policy. “The Jehovah’s Witnesses argue that ex-members should be avoided like the plague,” pleaded lawyer Pieter-Bram Lagae, who, among other things, assists the former Witness who started the case. “He used to sit on the Judicial Committees of Jehovah’s Witnesses and co-decided expulsions until he realized it was going too far. We act on behalf of a man whose wife is still a member, and he is ignored in his own home. Or a woman who has never seen her father since the expulsion.”
The prosecution had demanded an appropriate fine for the non-profit Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the only defendant in the case. No officials in the faith community were prosecuted. The defense had requested the acquittal, but the court considered the four charges proven.
“This judgment is the first of its kind worldwide. We are pleased that the Belgian judiciary has expressed itself in this way about the shunning policy”. So says Patrick Haeck in response to the criminal court ruling, a former Jehovah’s Witness who started the case in 2015 after being a member for 35 years in a high-ranking position.
Haeck used to sit on the Judicial Committees of Jehovah’s Witnesses and co-decide on expulsions until he judged it as going too far. “We have never challenged the right to disqualify Jehovah’s Witnesses. Organizations all have the right to remove members, but the way the expelled members are treated is wrong. If someone gives the order not to have any more contact after the expulsion, not to let them know if there is a death in the family, that is wrong. Former members are considered totally dead. ”
The court stated that the non-profit organization behind the Jehovah’s Witnesses denied and ignored the right to freedom of religion and to change religion. “People should have the right to change religion,” says Haeck. “The Jehovah’s Witnesses are abusing freedom of religion by depriving their members freedom of worship. There will likely be an appeal, but we look forward to continuing the proceedings. Our ultimate goal is to initiate something at European level. We are already seeing a reaction in Finland, Norway and Denmark where people are going to court. The idea that one is fighting against god by pointing out wrong policy in the organization is no longer acceptable. Whether anything actually changes will have to come from the administration of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States, because the Belgian non-profit organization also depends on them.”
“Violation of a fundamental right”
“It is the first time since the sixteenth century that a public authority in Western Europe has officially made it a criminal offense to read and follow the Bible. In a broader sense, this is a violation of an individual or group’s fundamental right to decide who they choose to associate with.” This is what the non-profit organization Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses says in response to the conviction by the Ghent criminal court.
The non-profit organization describes the criminal complaint as the application of “the Biblical standard to limit or end contacts with someone who has been disfellowshipped or has deliberately distanced himself from his or her faith”.
The verdict contradicts the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, the Jehovah’s Witnesses say. “It has repeatedly stated that Jehovah’s Witnesses are “a known religion,” and “emphasizes that it is a common feature of different religions to establish doctrinal standards of conduct that their adherents should adhere to in their private lives.”
According to the association, there was no incitement to discrimination or hatred. “Jehovah’s Witnesses encourage one another to apply Bible principles in daily life and to associate peacefully with all people. They shun all forms of hatred, class distinction, racism, segregation and violence and are committed to living by the two greatest biblical commandments: to love God and to love their neighbor as themselves (Mark 12: 28-31).”
Correction: An earlier version of this article said it was a €12,000 fine. That amount is a multiple of the surcharges, so the actual fine is 96,000 euros.