Originally published on Humanistischer Pressedienst by Julius Rupprecht on 16 February 2021
The statements of a cult expert about the practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses are true and therefore permissible. The District Court of Zurich has found that regularly criticized practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses such as the so-called ostracism and the two-witness rule are actually enforced, contrary to what the religious community often claims. Thus, the statements in question by the defendant were found to be true or could be held to be true. The acquittal of the accusation of defamation on July 9, 2019 (file number: GG180259) has now become final after the Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Switzerland did not appeal. A comment by Julius Rupprecht.
The cult expert and former employee of the infoSekta department, Regina Spiess, was sued by the Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Switzerland as a result of an interview in the Tages-Anzeiger (2015) and a media release (2015) because of defamation under Article 173 of the Swiss Criminal Code (with the exception of paragraph 3 comparable to Paragraph 186 of the Criminal Code). In these texts, she drew attention to, among other things, the practices of ostracism that violate human rights, deaths due to refusal of blood transfusions, and the promotion of sexual violence, particularly against minors, through the so-called two-witness rule.
Prohibition is a religious ordinance according to which baptized members of Jehovah’s Witnesses who turn from the faith or violate rules are expelled from the community. Other Jehovah’s Witnesses are no longer allowed to maintain contact with them, not even greet them. This also applies to close relatives such as parents, children, siblings, partners and grandparents. Expelled members often find out from third parties about the marriage, birth or death of loved ones.
Children of members who are baptized before they have reached religious maturity can in fact hardly freely decide how they want to live and what they want to believe in, as otherwise, with a high probability, they run the risk of losing all loved ones. As a result, children experience severe fears of the threat of deprivation of love on the one hand, and on the other hand, the ever-present depiction of the approaching end of the world in Armageddon, in the course of which all unbelievers are destroyed.
The so-called two-witness rule states that a criminal offense can only be investigated within the internal jurisdiction of Jehovah’s Witnesses if there are at least two witnesses for the offense. Experience has shown that this is only the case in very exceptional cases, especially with sexual violence. So if no one except the victim can testify to the abuse and the perpetrator(s) denies it is true, nothing will be done.
Argumentation from Jehovah’s Witnesses
The Jehovah’s Witnesses in Switzerland, as it is emphasized on their website in the “Frequently Asked Questions” section, state that baptized Witnesses who no longer practice are generally not shunned. However, this does not apply to people who repeatedly commit a “sin” such as sex before marriage, smoking, voting or accepting a blood transfusion or who profess a different belief or non-belief and show no repentance.
On the subject of blood transfusions , the Jehovah’s Witnesses communicated that, although it is mandatory to refuse blood transfusions, it does not lead to more deaths. On the other hand, those affected are encouraged to “steadfastly” or praised for remaining “steadfast”, even if they died in the course of this. For example in Awake! dated May 1994 .
Decision of the Zurich District Court
The court carefully examined each of the statements made by the accused cult expert. It was possible, however, to dispense with an interrogation of the 24 named witnesses, since the court saw the exonerating evidence already provided by the extensive written evidence. The district court also made it clear in several places that it was familiar with German and other international case law on the subject.
The accused was awarded a legal fee of 20,500 francs, which is high by Swiss standards, as well as an additional administrative fee of 4,000 francs.
The court recognized that the practice of ostracism exists and is, at least in its approach, violating human rights. Prohibition can therefore be understood as prescribed bullying and violates personal integrity and implicitly the freedom of belief and conscience of those affected.
It was also established in court that children and young people were also affected by ostracism and that they experienced severe fears as a result. This happens through pressure, manipulation, punishment and an exclusion mentality. The Watchtower materials would also aim to frighten the children. The ostracism is a manipulative influence.
The court also found that the two-witness rule exists in the form described above and that it can be assumed that it and other guidelines of the organization promote sexual abuse of children. The court reached this point of view mainly by referring to the final report of the Australian Royal Commission, a state-installed truth-finding commission, according to which fundamental beliefs and practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses are related to child abuse and the patriarchal and strongly hierarchical structure of the community leads to a weakened position of women and children. In particular, the idea that biblical law takes precedence over the secular also favors an already existing culture of not reporting sexual offenses. In addition, there are no internal measures to protect the child.
Regarding the question of the blood transfusion ban, the court merely stated that this would be regularly followed “judicially” and that it would lead to deaths. Statements by Jehovah’s Witnesses that it is “a completely unfounded assertion” that many Jehovah’s Witnesses (including children) die because they refuse blood transfusions are judicially refuted.
Although the judgment is not binding on German courts and authorities, it is nevertheless relevant in terms of content, since the teachings and practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses are approximately the same worldwide. The most important legal question in Germany in this context is whether the legal form of a corporation under public law (KdöR), which the Jehovah’s Witnesses acquired in all federal states between 2006 and 2015, must be reversed due to a lack of general legal compliance and compliance with fundamental rights. The question of the revocation of recognition as a religious body has hardly arisen in practice. Here it is all the more urgent.
The existence of the corporate status of the religious and ideological communities and the associated “bundle of privileges” are to be rejected for numerous reasons. These privileges include, above all, the right to levy taxes, tax breaks, exemption from works constitution and collective bargaining rights, airtime and membership in broadcasting councils. This preference for corporations over religious communities under private law can hardly be justified.
The corporate status is also not necessary for the existence of religious communities, because there is the guaranteed “freedom of association to religious societies” according to Article 137 paragraph 2 WRV. The omission of Article 137 (5) WRV would also be unproblematic with regard to the realization of religious freedom under Article 4 GG and would only require a new federal law regulation of the common general status of religious and ideological communities, for example in the form of a modified association law.
It is all the more unacceptable that the requirements for recognition of corporate status by the courts and in some cases by the state governments are applied as casually as was the case with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The process of recognition as a corporation in all federal states was preceded by several court proceedings, in which, among other things, the Federal Constitutional Court specified the requirements for obtaining it in 2000 (file number: 2 BvR 1500/97). In the context of the first granting of corporate status in Berlin, for example, the Higher Administrative Court of Berlin stated that there was no evidence of “active work towards a separation of spouses and families, which could also act as a permanent block against leaving” (OVG Berlin, judgment of March 24, 2005 – 5 B 12.01 -, juris para. 38). Among other things, the Federal Administrative Court had previously regarded this as a sufficient reason for the denial of corporate status and referred the proceedings back to the OVG for a specialized judicial investigation (BVerwG, judgment of May 17, 2001 – 7 C 1/01 -, juris para. 19) . An overview of all procedures can be found on the German Jehovah’s Witness website.
The decision of the District Court of Zurich discussed here contradicts the factual assessment of German administrative courts on several central points, although the same practices of the religious community were considered. The judgment thus suggests that the German courts followed the statements of Jehovah’s Witnesses too ignorantly.
If one subsumes the factual assessments of the Swiss judgment under German law, one must come to the conclusion that Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany are also systematically behaving in violation of fundamental rights. The religious provisions, in particular with regard to ostracism within the nuclear family, the promotion of sexual abuse and the de facto compulsion to reject life-support measures, violate the fundamental rights of believers and their relatives, at least Article 2 paragraph 1 in conjunction with Article 1 paragraph 1, Article 2 paragraph 2 , Article 4 paragraphs 1 and 2 and Article 6 paragraph 1 of the Basic Law.
According to the above-mentioned judgment of the Federal Administrative Court (para. 21), behavior by the religious community that runs counter to a state duty to protect can in itself exclude the granting of corporate status. The active protection obligations of the state derived from Article 2 paragraph 2, Article 4 paragraph 1 and 2 and Article 6 paragraph 2 sentence 2 of the Basic Law are undermined by the practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
At the same time, it is possible that the authorities granting corporate status and the reviewing courts, by legitimizing those religious practices as “lawful”, violated their protective obligations resulting from the endangered fundamental rights. This could have happened in particular because the religious community can now more easily commit or conceal fundamental rights violations through the privileges gained through corporate status. Furthermore, the official and / or judicial classification as “lawful” has at least a factual binding effect for future proceedings.
All in all, it can be stated that the requirements for granting corporate status are not and have never been met. This is why the Jehovah’s Witnesses KdöR status must be revoked.