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Court hits Jehovah’s Witnesses with €96,000 fine for discrimination
The Belgian chapter of the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been handed a €96,000 fine by a court in Ghent for discrimination and incitement to hate. It sets a precedent in Belgium that religious doctrine cannot be used as an excuse to break human rights laws.
The ruling was the end of a six-year struggle by ex-member Patrick Haeck for recognition of the religion’s practices, which he described as cruel to the point of leading to suicide, as discriminatory. Fifteen other former members and the federal centre for equal opportunities, Unia, eventually signed on to the case.
The plaintiffs were particularly concerned about shunning, a practice used to discourage members from leaving, or even questioning, the religion’s doctrines. Members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses are strongly discouraged from having relationships or friendships outside the congregation. Should someone no longer want to be a member or begin to question some of their beliefs and practices, they risk being excommunicated and consequently shunned.
‘Not above the law’
This means that no Jehovah’s Witness can ever speak to them again, including their own families. “If your relationship with the Jehovahs goes wrong, you end up being shunned,” said Haeck. “Nobody is allowed to talk to you anymore. Ex-witnesses are often left without family or friends. They suffer and have a greater risk of committing suicide.”
After hearing testimony from the plaintiffs in the case – from former members who were abandoned by their parents to warnings that they were possessed by the devil – the court came down on the side of the plaintiffs and imposed a fine of €96,000 on the Belgian chapter.
“The organisation propagates an exclusion policy among its local faith communities and thereby jeopardises many pillars of our fundamental rights,” said the court. “At no point did the religious community consider the very adverse consequences for the victims. It is the task of the judiciary to stop such practices. Religious doctrine is not above the law in our society.”
Patrick Haeck has spent six years getting his case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses to court ©Nicolas Maeterlinck/BELGA
“It’s not up to the court to hand down a decision about interpersonal relationships,” said the lawyer representing the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Our internal practices are based on what the bible says. So it is surprising to hear that the courts now say that it’s illegal to follow biblical principles.”
The public prosecutor, meanwhile, said: “I hope this can be a signal. They target a certain group and they isolate them socially and damage them psychologically. It is a blatant violation of the discrimination law, an extensive and fundamental matter.”
The Belgian chapter has 30 days to appeal the ruling if it chooses. Whether the fine will change any practices within the religion is, in any case, questionable. “The Jehovah’s Witnesses in Belgium do not exist in a vacuum,” said Haeck following the court’s decision. “They must strictly follow what is dictated by the central leadership in the United States. So they can’t just say that they will adapt these practices in their own country.”
But Haeck is more than satisfied with the ruling. “Finally we are recognised for what we are – victims.”
Photo top: The Jehovah's Witnesses Belgium headquarters in Kraainem