Jehovah's Witnesses and governments
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Jehovah's Witnesses believe their allegiance belongs to God's Kingdom, which they view as an actual government. They refrain from saluting the flag of any country or singing nationalistic songs, which they believe are forms of worship, although they may stand out of respect. They also refuse to participate in military service—even when it is compulsory—and do not become involved in politics. They believe Jesus' refusal to rule the kingdoms of the world as offered by the Devil, his refusal to be made king of Israel by the Jews, and his statements that he, his followers, and his kingdom are not part of the world, provide the bases for not being involved in politics or government.
Witnesses are taught that they should obey laws of the governments where they live unless such laws conflict with their beliefs, such as operating covertly in countries where their activities are banned. They are instructed to pay all taxes of the country in which they reside, and consider governments to be solely responsible for how they are used.
According to the book Judging Jehovah's Witnesses, the Witnesses have helped to widen the definition of civil liberties in most western societies, hence broadening the rights of millions of people, due to their firm stand and determination. According to the preface to the book State and Salvation: "One of the results of the Witnesses' legal battles was the long process of discussion and debate that led to the Charter of Rights, which is now part of the fundamental law of Canada. Other battles in countries around the world have involved the rights to decline military service or martial arts training, to decline to participate in political parties or governmental elections, to exercise free and anonymous speech, to exercise freedom of association, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, medical self-determination, etc. Witnesses continue to, in their words, 'defend and legally establish the Good News' around the world."
Many United States Supreme Court cases involving Jehovah's Witnesses have shaped First Amendment law. Significant cases affirmed rights such as these:
- Right to Refrain from Compulsory Flag Salute - West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette
- Conscientious objection to military service
- Preaching in public
By 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court had reviewed 71 cases involving Jehovah's Witnesses as an organization, two-thirds of which were decided in their favor. In 2002, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society disputed an ordinance in Stratton, Ohio that required a permit in order to preach from door to door. The Supreme Court decided in favor of the Witnesses.
In 1972 the Singapore government de-registered and banned the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses on the grounds that its members refuse to perform military service (which is obligatory for all male citizens), salute the flag, or swear oaths of allegiance to the state. Singapore has banned all written materials (including Bibles) published by the International Bible Students Association and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, both publishing arms of the Jehovah's Witnesses. A person in possession of banned literature can be fined up to S$2,000 (US$1,460) and jailed up to 12 months for a first conviction.
In France, a number of court cases have involved Jehovah Witnesses and their organizations, especially on the question of their refusing blood transfusions to minor patients. These questions had far-reaching legal implications regarding the tax status of their organizations.
Association Les Témoins de Jéhovah
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Association Les Témoins de Jéhovah v. Direction des Services Fiscaux challenged the denial of tax-exempt status for Association Les Témoins de Jéhovah, the not-for-profit corporation used by Jehovah's Witnesses in France. Religion-supporting organizations (associations cultuelles) in France can request exemption from certain taxes, including taxes on donations, if their purpose is solely to organize religious worship and they do not infringe on public order. According to the French tax administration, tax-exempt status was denied because:
The association of Jehovah's Witnesses forbids its members to defend the nation, to take part in public life, to give blood transfusions to their minor children and that the parliamentary commission on cults has listed them as a cult which can disturb public order.
On October 5, 2004, the Court of Cassation—the highest court in France for cases outside of administrative law—rejected the Witnesses' recourse against taxation at 60% of the value of some of their contributions, which the fiscal services assimilated to a legal category of donations close to that of inheritance and subject to the same taxes between non-parents. The court ruled that the tax administration could legally tax the corporation used by Jehovah's Witnesses if they received donations in the form of dons gratuits and they were not recognized as associations cultuelles.
According to the Watch Tower Society, the taxed contributions include donations for the support of humanitarian relief efforts in Rwanda in 1994. French law makes a distinction between normal non-profit associations (whose donations for humanitarian aid are not tax-exempt), non-profit associations of public usefulness (whose donations for humanitarian aid are tax exempt), and associations supporting religious activities (whose donations are tax exempt). Humanitarian aid is not considered to support religious activities and thus, accordingly, is not considered to be tax-exempt under the rules governing associations supporting religious activities. Typically, religious organizations in France providing humanitarian aid found a separate association devoted to that purpose; it may then be declared of public usefulness.
The Conseil d'État, the supreme court for administrative matters, ruled that denying the statute of association cultuelle on grounds of accusations of infringement of public order was illegal unless substantiated by actual proofs of that infringement.
On June 30, 2011, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) unanimously ruled that France's imposing a retroactive tax for the years 1993 and 1996 had violated Jehovah's Witnesses' right to freedom of religion under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. On July 5, 2012, the ECHR ordered the government of France to repay €4,590,295 in taxes, plus interest, and to reimburse legal costs of €55,000. On December 11, 2012, the government of France repaid €6,373,987.31 ($8,294,320).
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Other court cases have concerned the rights for patients, or of minor patients' legal guardians, to refuse medical treatment even if there is a risk of death. For example, in a 2001 case, doctors at a French public hospital who gave blood products to a patient with an acute renal insufficiency were found not to have committed a mistake of a nature to involve the responsibility of the State (communiqué, English translation). The Council stated that "there does not exist, for the doctor, an abstract and unalterable hierarchy between the obligation to treat the patient, and that to respect the will of the patient," concluding that faced with a decision to treat patients against their will, doctors do not have a legally predefined obligation to treat the patient, nor do they have a legally predefined obligation to abide by their wishes.
In a child custody case following a divorce, a woman was denied custody of her children outside of holidays for various reasons, including her membership of Jehovah's Witnesses; the court of appeals of Nîmes considered that the educational rules applied by the Witnesses to their children were essentially inappropriate because of their hardness, their intolerance, and the obligation for children to practice proselytism. The case went before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) (request #64927/01), which ruled that the court should have based its decision on the mother's actual handling of her children and not on abstract, general notions pertaining to the mother's religious affiliation.
Some Witnesses requested that the National Union of the Associations for the Defense of Families and Individuals not be officially recognized as useful to the public because of its opposition to sectarian excesses which, the plaintiffs alleged persecuted Jehovah's Witnesses. Both the Conseil d'État and the ECHR rejected their claim.
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled in favour of the rights of Jehovah's Witnesses in many cases. For example:
- Bayatyan v. Armenia. Grand Chamber of ECHR affirms right to conscientious objection to military service.(Amnesty International. 7 July 2011) See Amnesty International Statement
- Efstratiou v. Greece (18 December 1996), Strasbourg 77/1996/696/888 (Eur. Ct. H.R.)
- Manoussakis and Others v. Greece (26 September 1996), Strasbourg 59/1995/565/651 (Eur. Ct. H.R.)
- Hoffmann v. Austria (23 June 1993), Strasbourg 15/1992/360/434 (Eur. Ct. H.R.)
- Kokkinakis v. Greece (25 May 1993), Strasbourg 3/1992/348/421 (Eur. Ct. H.R.)
In 2005 the Presiding Judge of the Provincial Court in Ruhengeri, Rwanda ruled that Witnesses should not be imprisoned for refusing to bear arms in civil defense 'night patrols' since they were willing to participate and had participated in other forms of community service. 297 Witnesses had been imprisoned on such charges in an 8 month period of 2004. 143 of those imprisoned had been severely beaten.
Government officials in various countries, including Brazil, Burundi, Mexico, Mozambique, and Tuvalu have commended Jehovah's Witnesses for conducting literacy classes and for providing religious educational materials.
- "Salvation Belongs to Jehovah". Watchtower 104: 21. September 15, 2002.
- "Can You Make the World a Better Place?". The Watchtower: 3. 2001-10-15. Retrieved 2010-03-20.
- "The Key to a Happy World". The Watchtower: 5–6. 2001-10-15. Retrieved 2010-03-20.
- What Does God Require of Us?. Brooklyn, New York: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. 1996. p. 27.
- "Watchtower" 11/15/00 p. 15 par. 18 Christians Find Happiness in Serving "There are many people who claim to worship God, but their worship is really directed to the gods of nationalism, tribalism, wealth, self, or some other deity"
- "Watchtower" 2/15/67 p. 115 par. 15 "(Dan. 2:44) "Thus the nationalistic governments on which the various religious systems depend so heavily for support are destined to be crushed by God's heavenly kingdom."
- Watchtower 11/1/90 p. 24 par. 5 " … what if part of the tax money is used to finance something we disagree with, such as free abortions, blood banks, or programs that conflict with our neutral views? We still pay all our taxes. It is the authority that must take responsibility for how it uses the tax money."
- "God and Caesar". Watchtower: 9. May 1, 1996.
- Judging Jehovah's Witnesses, Shawn Francis Peters, University Press of Kansas: 2000
- State and Salvation, William Kaplan, University of Toronto Press: 1989
- Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of New York v. Village of Stratton. See Supreme Court Website
- Proceedings in 2004
- NPR America Audio
- "Singapore", International Religious Freedom Report 2004, U. S. Department of State, As Retrieved 2010-03-11
- Religious Intolerance In France
- text of the ruling (French)
- court case; translation)
- “French Tax of Jehovah’s Witnesses hinders rights: Court” (Canada.com, June 30, 2011) Ref Canada.com
- Chamber judgment Association Les Témoins de Jéhovah v. France 30.06.11 HUDOK
- Judges order €4 million Jehovah’s Witnesses award Human Rights Europe
- "Brazil", 1997 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses, page 183
- "Educational Programs", Jehovah’s Witnesses and Education, ©2002 Watch Tower, page 11
- "Mexico", 1995 Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses, page 213
- "Witnesses to the Most Distant Part of the Earth", Jehovah's Witnesses - Proclaimers of God's Kingdom, pages 466-467
- "Efforts That Promote Good Moral Standards", The Watchtower, November 15, 2002, page 32
- "A Far-Reaching Educational Program", Awake!, December 22, 2000, page 9