A court in Belgium just fined the Jehovah’s Witnesses €12,000 (about $14,255 USD) — and possibly more — for inciting hate against those who have walked away from the religion.
It’s effectively a punishment for blacklisting former members of the cult.
For those unaware, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have a practice called Disfellowshipping where ex-JWs are shunned by their families and friends for life — because that distance is the only thing believers can hold over the heads of the formerly faithful. (Imagine getting married or having a child — all without your living parents by your side — and you understand just how devastating this absence can be.)
In 2015, however, Patrick Haeck, a former JW, sued the organization for slander and defamation, claiming they violated Belgium’s anti-discrimination laws. It’s not just about religious beliefs; it’s that the faith teaches people there’s something inherently problematic about those former members.
He claimed that once the members had left the group, they were disowned and completely isolated socially, by order of the organisation.
Belgium’s Interfederal Equal Opportunities Centre Unia and some fifteen individuals had taken up civil action, with the victims’ lawyers emphasising the far-reaching consequences of the “shunning policy,” reports De Morgen.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses state that ex-members should be shunned like the plague,” said lawyer Pieter-Bram Lagae, who assists the ex-witness who started the case.
One plaintiff said during the trial that she was kicked out of the JWs when she was 21 for dating someone outside the faith: She said of the cult, “They label you as a perpetrator, when you are actually the victim. Families are torn apart by that imposed, impossible choice between family and God.” That’s where the discrimination argument is coming from: You’re not just kicked out; you’re branded as a Bad Person.
The judge in this case said that was unacceptable:
“The association propagates the exclusion policy to its local faith communities and thereby jeopardizes many pillars of our fundamental rights. At no point did the religious community consider the very adverse consequences for the victims. It is the job of the judiciary to stop such practices. Religious rules are not above the law in our society.“
So that’s what it looks like when courts don’t let religious groups get away with hurting other people… Must be nice.
By the way, some news articles say the fine is actually €96,000 (which isn’t connected to the number of plaintiffs). That’s still a drop in the bucket for the Witnesses as a whole. It’s mostly a symbolic judgment implying that the practice is discriminatory. But if more ex-JWs sue for the same reason, the costs could add up to quite a bit.
It could be especially problematic if this sort of thing happens beyond Belgium. Haeck said this was only the beginning and that “We are going to the European Court,” which would have far greater implications for the Witnesses if a similar ruling is made.
The Witnesses have 30 days to appeal the decision. It might actually be good news if they do, because that would allow the case to reach higher courts and have further reaching consequences.
The Witnesses have responded as you’d expect, claiming this violates their religious freedom. They claim the ruling makes it a crime “to read and follow what the Bible teaches”… which, as we all know, is a statement that could apply to any interpretation of the Bible no matter how harmful it is. They also cited a professor who said the government shouldn’t be interfering “in the decisions made by adults.” The problem with that claim is that many Witnesses are baptized into the faith before they’re adults. The shunning they face is a direct consequence of decisions people made for them before they were legally old enough to think for themselves.
But regardless of the judicial outcome, they can’t hide this practice anymore. As more ex-JWs speak out against it, and as more non-JWs become aware of it, the cult-like practices of the religion could become the main thing they’re known for. Given how indefensible it is, that could have lasting repercussions for practicing members.
For a better discussion about the ramifications of this ruling, check out this conversation with ex-JW Lloyd Evans, Patrick Haeck, and others.
(Thanks to Alain for the link)