maintain that in the majority of countries they have legal status or are recognized as to having basic rights afforded them similar to those of mainstream religions. In many areas, government officials have praised their work in the fields of linguistic education along with disaster management relief in instances of national or international crisis. The Witnesses also face legal or governmental opposition in many countries. This has been the basis for many legal cases against the Witnesses.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe their allegiance belongs to God's Kingdom, which is viewed as an actual government. Thus they refrain from saluting the flag of any country or singing nationalistic songs. They believe that these acts are tantamount to worship. The political neutrality of Jehovah's Witnesses is also expressed by their refusal to participate in military service – even when it is compulsory – and by their detachment from secular politics. Voting in political elections is considered a compromise of their Christian neutrality.
Still, members are expected to obey all laws of their native governments, so long as these do not violate what they view as God's law. They are instructed to pay all taxes of the country in which they reside, considering the government 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:
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. Most recently, 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
, the Moscow City Court banned the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow
, their legal entity was liquidated. (Proceedings in 2004
See also NPR America Audio: [Media:http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1848315]
The European Court of Human Rights
have defended the rights of the Witnesses in many cases. For example:
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 v. Direction des Services Fiscaux
The Association Les Témoins de Jéhovah
, a not-for-profit religious association used by Jehovah's Witnesses in France
, was denied tax-exempt status for certain taxes by the French tax authorities. Religion-supporting organizations
) in France can ask to be exempted from a number of taxes, including taxes on donations, as long as their purpose is solely to organize religious worship and they do not infringe on public order. The reasons for this denial were stated:
- 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.
The list alluded to as final argument is given in the report
) from a 1996 Parliamentary Commission on Cults
; however, reports such as this carry no legal or regulatory force.
On October 5, 2004, the Court of Cassation, which is the highest court in France for cases outside of administrative law, made public a decision in the case of Association Les Témoins de Jéhovah v. Direction des Services Fiscaux which rejected the Witnesses' recourse against taxation at 60 percent 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 (text of the ruling, in legal French).
The amount involved in the controversy could exceed $28 million (U.S.). According to Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society representatives, this includes a 60% tax on contributions used to support a vast humanitarian relief effort to Rwanda in 1994.
French law makes a distinction between normal non-profit associations (which are not tax-exempt for the above category of donations), non-profit associations of public usefulness (whose donations are tax exempt; this is the legal form normally used for associations engaging in humanitarian aid), and associations supporting religious activities (whose donations are tax exempt). Humanitarian aid is not considered support of religious activities and thus, accordingly, is not considered to be tax-exempt under the rules governing associations supporting religious activities; the usual solution is to found a separate association devoted to humanitarian aid, which will operate under the tax rules pertaining to associations devoted to humanitarian aid; it may then be possible to have it declared of public usefulness. To summarize the ruling, the fiscal services could legally tax the associations of the Witnesses if they received donations in the form of dons gratuits and they were not recognized as associations cultuelles.
However, 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. For instance, a legal reason for this denial could be that the association incited to felonies such as failing to assist a person in danger; but mere considerations that the doctrine of the association could lead to such incitations were insufficient (court case; translation).
Other court cases have concerned the right for a patient, or of a minor patient's legal guardians, to refuse medical treatment even in case of lethal consequences should the treatment not be accepted. For instance, in a 2001 court case, doctors at a French public hospital that had given blood products to a patient with an acute renal
insufficiency, in clear danger of death, were found not to have committed a mistake of a nature to involve the responsibility of the State (communiqué
, English translation
). The commentary of the Council, however, was 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
; that is, doctors, when faced with the question of whether to treat a patient against his will, do not have a legally predefined obligation to treat the patient, nor do they have a legally predefined obligation to abide by his or her wishes.
In a child custody case following a divorce, a woman (Mrs Séraphine Palau-Martinez) was denied the custody of her children outside of holidays for various motives, among which her belonging to the Jehovah's Witnesses; the court of appeals of Nîmes considered that the educational rules applied by the Witnesses to their children were essentially criticable 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, in that respect, should have based itself on actual facts regarding the mother's handling of her children and not on abstract, general notions pertaining to the mother's religious affiliation.
Some Witnesses requested the cancellation of the recognition of public usefulness of the association UNADFI (National Union of the Associations for the Defense of Families and Individuals), a group whose objectives include fighting sectarian excesses, and which, the plaintiffs alleged, persecuted the Jehovah's Witnesses. Both the Conseil d'État and the ECHR rejected their claim.
sent German and Austrian Jehovah's Witnesses who refused allegiance to the Nazi state and military service to concentration camps
Other areas of government action
- Canada: Quebec Court of Appeal case on "freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression" set aside town ordinance restricting Witness activity
- Peru: Superior Court of Justice of Lambayeque in 2000 upheld right of Witness parents to control medical care of their children. A mother had been charged with neglect and endangerment for selecting successful non-blood medical treatment for her 10 year old son.
- Eritrea: Eritrean Witnesses were stripped of citizenship and basic human rights in 1994 and have since widely experienced loss of employment, refusal of medical treatment, refusal of identity documents, arrest for assembly, proselitizing, and conscientious objection, as well as imprisonment for upwards of a decade, in some cases.
- Rwanda: In 2005 the Presiding Judge of the Provincial Court in Ruhengeri 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.
- Nigeria: In 2001 the Nigerian Supreme court unanimously decided in favor of the Witness right to medical self-determination in the case of blood transfusion.
- Japan: The Supreme court in 2000 upheld the principle of "informed consent" with regard to a Witness patient's right to refuse a blood transfusion.
- The Supreme court in 1996 upheld the right of Japanese Witness students to refuse martial arts training as part of physical education. Witnesses had been refused diplomas, forced to repeat a year of school, suspended and expelled based on their refusal to 'learn war.'
- South Korea: The Supreme Court in 2004 upheld 7-2 as constitutional the law regarding compulsory military service which has resulted in more than 10,000 Witnesses serving prison terms in South Korea. In April 2005 more than 1000 Witnesses were serving prison terms in South Korea based on their conscientious objection to military service. However, 7 of the court's 9 members, including 5 of those in the majority, expressed a recommendation that the legislature add an alternative service option to the statute.
- Singapore: Jehovah's Witnesses are banned in Singapore on grounds that it was prejudicial to public welfare and order. All literature of the Jehovah's Witnesses Watch Tower Society was also banned. The ban was believed to be based on the Jehovah's Witnesses' refusal on religious grounds to perform the two-year military service that is compulsory for all male citizens.