Religious Minorities in Europe

Testimony of Watchtower Society legal counsel Philip Brumley before the U.S. Congress on June 14, 2000

June 14, 2000

Presented by Philip Brumley General Counsel for Jehovah’s Witnesses



Effect on Institutional Level and Personal Lives


Fifty-seven years ago on this very day-June 14, the nation’s annual Flag Day-the Supreme Court handed down one of its most historic decisions: West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. Speaking for the Court, Justice Jackson stated: “If there is any fixed star in our Constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” This ruling guaranteed religious freedom for Jehovah’s Witnesses in connection with our Bible-based belief that saluting any flag violates God’s demand for exclusive devotion.

Even though most citizens do not agree with our doctrinal stand on this issue, the fact remains that the United States has gone on record that it will defend our right to adhere to this belief In contrast, many nations of Western Europe are becoming increasingly equivocal about whether they will protect genuine freedom of worship.

When governments determine that religious beliefs do not meet standards of “loyalty” to the State or constitute a breach of public order and withhold religious recognition or registration, where does that lead us? Will governments next dictate what beliefs are acceptable in democratic societies? When governments fail to acknowledge any distinction between commercial enterprises and voluntary, self-sacrificing endeavors to promote humanitarian, religious endeavors, what will happen to the concept of charities? Will volunteerism be taxed out of existence? Can a government legitimately assert that it protects religion freedom when at the same time it uses its taxing power to oppress those who belong to certain religions?

We will provide some details of these trends using France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, and Sweden as examples. The following facts speak for themselves and document the current state of the basic human right of religious self-determination in Western Europe.


Records show that Jehovah’s Witnesses have been active in France since 1891. This spring more than 204,000 attended the most sacred celebration of the year for Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Memorial of Christ’s death. Certainly Jehovah’s Witnesses are not a “new” religious movement and can hardly be called a “minority” religion when we are the third-largest Christian religion in France.

The recent attempt of the French government to officially deny religious status to Jehovah’s Witnesses began with an adverse ruling by the Conseil d’Etat in a 1985 inheritance case. (The French will aver that, under the rubric of the “wall of separation of Church and State,” the French government grants official recognition to no religion. However, the facts speak otherwise. Recognized religions are extended benefits, such as being able to receive charitable bequests.) The Conseil d’Etat refused to allow one of Jehovah’s Witnesses to leave a portion of her estate to the Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses in France because the court did not agree with our doctrinal rejection of blood transfusions and refusal to participate in military service. The fact that there are 3,000 French doctors who are willing to operate without blood completely eviscerates the first basis for the court’s ruling. The passing of a law on alternative non-military service in France that provides a conscientiously acceptable method for young Jehovah’s Witnesses to render ‘Caesar his due’ does away with the other reason for the Court’s refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses in France.

In spite of these favorable developments, the French Parliamentary Commissions on Sects have made the situation worse by issuing biased reports containing lists of supposedly “dangerous sects” and including Jehovah’s Witnesses among them.

Institutional Consequences:

A direct result of the discriminatory treatment toward Jehovah’s Witnesses in France is a 60-percent tax that has been levied on donations received by the Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses in France. Next week, on June 20, 2000, a hearing is scheduled in Nanterre on this matter. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall wisely observed: “The power to tax involves the power to destroy.” Although governments are fully authorized, both Biblically and secularly, to tax their constituents, this particular tax has no other purpose but to make it impossible for Jehovah’s Witnesses in France to financially support the operations of their own faith. That means 60 cents of each dollar contributed to support our annual Bible conventions, operate our Kingdom Halls (houses of worship), and fund national relief measures will go to the French government. Only forty cents on the dollar will be left to use for the charitable reason for which it was given. No religion could financially continue to operate under such a punitive tax.

To our knowledge, no other religion is being taxed 60- percent on personal contributions made in good faith to their church. Instead, other religions enjoy tax exemptions granted by the Conseil d’Etat. Not even most minority religions are taxed-in fact, we are only aware of one other case where personal donations to a religious association have been questioned. The French tax authorities have clearly indicated at the conclusion of their 1996 and 1997 audits that the association that is now being exorbitantly taxed “participates in the maintenance and practice of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ form of worship.” Those audits established the not-for-profit nature of the associations used by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Recently, an audit by the international firm of Grant Thornton likewise established the not- for-profit character of all associations used by Jehovah’s Witnesses in France.

Upholding the religious nature of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ associations, there have recently been four favorable Courts of Appeals decisions exempting Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses (houses of worship) from paying land (property) tax. This is part of the process established in France to grant religious recognition. Needless to say, French authorities have appealed all four cases which means that this issue will ultimately be heard by the Conseil d’Etat. Should that court rule in favor of religious freedom as Justice Jackson’s court did in this country in 1943, it will not be necessary for us to pursue this matter to the European Court of Human Rights.

Personal Consequences:

The negative effects on a personal level from the parliamentary mislabeling of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “dangerous sect” are widespread. Schoolteachers and day care workers who are Jehovah’s Witnesses have been targets of smear campaigns, unwanted job transfers, or have been fired because they were perceived as being a threat to the safety, morals, and education of children under their care only because of belonging to a supposed “sect.”

A new aspect of the consequences on a personal level is illustrated in the case of Rend Schneerberger, a minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who has been corresponding regularly with inmates in the French prison system to provide spiritual guidance. Some prisoners, who are not Jehovah’s Witnesses, requested subscriptions from Rend to The Watchtower and Awake f, the official journals of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In October 1999, the prisoners advised Mr. Schneerberger that they were no longer receiving these religious magazines. The reason given by the director of the Bapaurne prison was that the magazines were suspended because of the “sectarian” nature of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “recognized by the parliamentary commissions.” The suspension has not been lifted.


Belgium’s roots with Jehovah’s Witnesses also trace back to 1891. At the Memorial celebration of Christ’s death held this spring, there were more than 46,000 in attendance.

Belgium also had its parliamentary commissions and reports on sects in 1997 with ongoing consequences. Although Jehovah’s Witnesses have no “institutional consequences” as a result of being included in the discriminatory HA of sects that was published, there are effects on a personal level.

In some schools of the French-speaking community in Belgium, students who are Jehovah’s Witnesses are feeling the effect of being perceived as belonging to a “dangerous sect.” For example, a teacher in the Ecole des Pagodes issued a paper for class discussions that said: “In Belgium, there are 189 variable dangerous sects and 37 are hard-core ones, such as-Jehovah’s Witnesses [among others].”

In child custody disputes, some judges have a high regard for Jehovah’s Witnesses and have granted custody to the Witness parents and rejected the allegation of opposing parties who claim that Jehovah’s Witnesses are dangerous. But note what was stated in two cases in the Flemish section of Belgium:

– “It constitutes a grave danger for the children taking into account the influence of the Jehovah- sect” of which the mother seems to be a member.

– “Jehovah’s Witnesses are not to be viewed as a religion but as a movement of fanatics.”


In 1891, Jehovah’s Witnesses became established in Germany. This year over 276,000 attended the Memorial of Christ’s death-again not a new religion and not an insignificant minority. In the not- too- distant past, Jehovah’s Witnesses survived the Nazi concentration camps and Communist persecution on German soil.

The right of Jehovah’s Witnesses to remain neutral in politics has again become the focus of a legal struggle over our right to have the same legal status that is granted to other recognized religions. The denial of this favored status to Jehovah’s Witnesses is based on our Bible-based and historical stand of not electing individuals to political office. Recall that Jesus told Pilate: “My kingdom is no part of this world.” The German State has determined that this is not an acceptable belief in a democratic society. Since freedom of conscience and belief is one of the most basic and universally protected human rights, what should have been a mere logistical formality has transcended into a human rights struggle.

Institutional Consequences:

The Federal Administrative Court made a decision that has far- reaching consequences for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany. They reversed two lower court decisions and refused recognition to Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “public law” corporation. Jehovah’s Witnesses had fulfilled all designated requirements, but the State introduced a new element when considering our application. It was decided that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have the degree of loyalty required by the German State to extend favorable-status treatment. This decision is based on the fact that historically Jehovah’s Witnesses refrain from participation in political elections or holding political office. Not even the German Constitution requires mandatory participation by all citizens in the electoral process, but evidently the Federal Administrative Court requires this of Jehovah’s Witnesses. We have contested this decision through a complaint to the Constitutional Court.

Due to this federal-level decision, the finance authorities then took the unwarranted step to rescind the permanent nature of tax exemptions granted to associations owning the houses of worship for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany. These authorities, in anticipation of a negative outcome, are poised to declassify Jehovah’s Witnesses’ corporations as not being of “common benefit.” If an adverse ruling is handed down, every Kingdom Hall in Germany will be taxed as though what goes on inside is not worship, an assertion so ludicrous that no nation could make it and still maintain that it guarantees religious freedom to those within its borders.

Personal Consequences:

The impact of the trend toward discrimination of members of minority religions is well illustrated by what happened to a family from Bergheim, where both parents are Jehovahgs Witnesses. Over a period of 15 years, the Local Youth Office in Bergheim assigned about 20 foster children to this couple’s care. After the chairwoman of an anti-cult-movement contacted the office, they refused to renew the Witness couple’s permit for a baby girl to remain with them although the baby had spent half her infant fife in their care. This resulted in a two-year court battle, with the court ultimately defending the rights of the Witness parents to retain custody of the foster child and rejecting the youth office’s arguments as completely unfounded. However, after the court case, the Local Youth Office has not assigned any new foster children to the care of this family. Clearly, the courts cannot legislate an end to prejudice.


Jehovah’s Witnesses began their preaching in Austria in 1891. In April 2000, over 33,000 joined them in their sacred annual Memorial of Christ’s death.

After 20 years of seeking to be classified as a religion in Austria and just when the courts were close to obligating the government to do so, the government passed a new law setting up a special religious category called “confessional community.” We are the only religion immediately affected by this law. Under this new law, we are now required to wait an additional I 0-year probationary period before we may once again apply for recognition as a religion. As a result, this new law automatically and deliberately extends Jehovah’s Witnesses’ 20- year struggle into a 30-year wait. In the meantime, a new complaint by Jehovah’s Witnesses is pending with the Austrian Constitutional Court concerning the new law that created this multi-tiered religious classification system.

Institutional Consequences:

The classification of “confessional community” does not allow for performance of marriage rites, pastoral visits to hospitals or prisons, recognition of ministers who are free from military and civil service, or tax advantages.

Showing that not all Austrian officials share the same viewpoint, last fall the Austrian Constitutional Court handed down a favorable decision regarding the pastoral care of a prisoner. This decision influenced the Federal Ministry of Justice to make a provision for Jehovah’s Witnesses to visit prisoners who request assistance from us.

Personal Consequences:

To illustrate the impact on people’s daily lives, we offer two examples from Austria. A woman who is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses applied for an apartment in a village. The mayor of that village has a say on such decisions. At a meeting with the mayor, both parties came to an oral agreement. Upon departing the mayor asked in passing: “You do not belong to a sect, do you?” The woman said: “I am one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The mayor did not say anything, but was visibly shocked. Later the Witness was told that the apartment had to be given to someone else.

At times, when seeking work, a trial period or preliminary tests are required for all applicants. The results of such trial periods have often been very positive for applicants who are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Employers have advised them that they are very pleased with their work. However, when employers learn afterwards that the applicant is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, all interest in hiring them is dropped. Most employers have only expressed their reluctance verbally, but one letter explicitly stated: “We thank you for your application but we are sorry to have to tell you that based on our long experience we do not employ persons belonging to any kind of sect.”


The work of Jehovah’s Witnesses began in Sweden in 1886. This year over 36,700 joined together in the annual celebration of the Memorial of Christ’s death.

Sweden just instituted an arrangement for registering religions, thus ending the existence of one official State religion. We are pleased to report that on March 13, 2000, the government registered Jehovah’s Witnesses as a religious community. However, Sweden’s labor and tax laws evidently make no exceptions for members of religious orders or other religious workers. Because of a lack of any acknowledgment of “volunteerism!’ even based on religious devotion, the Swedish government is in effect dictating how much time and energy one can devote to godly endeavors within the context of a monastic arrangement. In fact, other religions in Sweden no longer have volunteers, but have to rely on an employed staff under central collective agreements with labor unions. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, volunteering our time and energy to promote true worship is the whole-souled sacrifice that we desire to make to God.

Institutional Consequences:

In most nations Jehovah’s Witnesses have a national office that coordinates, under the direction of the Governing Body in New York, the religious activities of adherents in that land. Those serving in these offices belong to a religious order and provide their services free of charge. This inures to the benefit of Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide by keeping the cost of our religious endeavors to a minimum. Instead of recognizing the monastic nature of our office in Sweden, the authorities there are obligating each member of that office to pay a tax on any service he or she receives from others who also serve there. Labors of love, such as cooking, cleaning, or doing the laundry, contribute to a family environment and expedite efforts of others to translate and distribute our religious literature, and organize the worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout Sweden. These helpful endeavors are being assessed at the current “market value,” that is, what it would cost to commercially obtain such services. Thus, they have become prohibitively expensive to those benefiting from those services, although no one is being paid. For example, a volunteer member of our religious order in Sweden receives approximately $100 to reimburse him for personal expenses incurred during the month. The tax imposed adds up to $93 7, almost IO times the cash income that he receives.

By requiring a tax for volunteer efforts-anything perceived as a personal service-the government has equated the self-sacrificing, religiously-motivated lifestyle of members of the coordinating office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Sweden with wealthy individuals who pay for such services. As a result of this attempt to secularize the religious activities of what takes place at our office in Sweden, we may have to drastically reduce the number of volunteers who serve there.

Keeping this situation in mind, you may recall a Biblical event involving Jesus and Mary, the sister of Lazarus. Matthew, Mark and John all record the event, which took place not long before Jesus died. The account at Mark 14:3-8 states, in part: “A woman came with an alabaster case of perfumed oil, genuine nard, very expensive. Breaking open the alabaster case she began to pour it upon his head.” Many of Jesus’ followers objected to this act of kindness because of the cost of the gift. Jesus reprimanded them saying, “Let her alone. She did a fine deed toward me. She did what she could.” The account estimates that Mary’s gift of personal service cost 300 denaria which was the equivalent of a year’s wages. If Mary had attempted to render such a service today, Sweden would require Jesus to pay a tax of 10 times the value of the gift for Mary’s personal service, i.e., 3,000 denarii in cash. Mary would have been precluded from rendering the service to Jesus and our Lord would have been precluded from accepting it. What Jesus called “a fine deed” would never have taken place. This well illustrates the diternma facing our religious order in Sweden.

Unhappily, this situation is not limited to Sweden, but is becoming more frequent throughout Western Europe.

Personal Consequences:

A case in point is a graduate of our missionary training school who has been serving voluntarily in Sweden since 1961. She has devoted her life to her religious work. She has acquired decades of experience as a translator of Bible literature. Now she has been forced to reduce the amount of time she formerly devoted to translation to cook her own meals, care for her own laundry, and clean her own room because she cannot afford the prohibitive tax that would be imposed if others were to care for those needs, as is routinely done in other branch offices of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the world.

In another case, a skilled worker had to decline participation in a renovation project of a house of worship. He wanted to donate his time, all costs involved with travel, and use of his tools to the project, but decided he could not afford to pay the high daily tax for the simple meals that would be prepared and served for free by members of the congregation.


The concept of legally legitimizing religious discrimination is fraught with problems, legally and morally. Yet that is what happens when nations adopt a multi-tiered system of religious recognition. International agreements have attempted to eliminate discrimination due to religious belief, but as we have seen, it still goes on. A new and worrisome trend in Europe is the refusal to recognize the religious nature of activities performed by volunteers. European labor and tax authorities are arbitrarily imposing an “employer/employee” relationship to the religious activities engaged in by those of Jehovah’s Witnesses who are privileged to become members of the Order of Special Full-Time Servants, as our international religious order is known. Interestingly, the Supreme Administrative Court of Brazil ruled that members of our religious order in that land are not subject to taxes imposed on employees since the activities involved were religiously motivated rather than of a pecuniary nature. Are governments, who laud religious freedom and human rights on the one hand acting consequentially when they limit “religious activities” to what they narrowly and arbitrarily define as “worship”? What is the solution?

Personally, I am eagerly awaiting the fulfillment of the promise contained here in the Bible, in Isaiah 32:16 through 18, which says: “And in the wilderness justice will certainly reside, and in the orchard righteousness itself will dwell. And the work of the [true] righteousness must become peace; and the service of the [true] righteousness, quietness and security to time indefinite. And my people must dwell in a peaceful abiding place and in residences of full confidence and in undisturbed resting- places.”

Until that time arrives under God’s Kingdom rule, I appeal to this committee to use its influence to protect and reinforce the universally recognized right of religious freedom in Western Europe.

Author not available, RELIGIOUS MINORITIES IN EUROPE:PHILIP BRUMLEY. , Congressional Testimony, 06-14-2000.