Austria’s religion law violates human rights

JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES OFFICE OF PUBLIC INFORMATION

For Immediate Release
March 16, 2009
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ECHR: Austria’s religion law violates human rights

STRASBOURG — On March 12, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) through its decision in Gütl v. Austria and Löffelmann v. Austria further vindicated the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Austria. In harmony with its decision of July 31, 2008, the Court ruled that the Austrian religion law violates the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court’s ruling confirms that ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses suffered discrimination when the government refused to accord them the same rights and privileges extended to clergymen and religious ministers of other churches and religious organizations.

The Gütl and Löffelmann rulings are significant in that they reinforce the Court’s earlier decision that the right of a religious community to an autonomous existence is indispensable for pluralism in a democratic society. Therefore, the failure to grant the request by Jehovah’s Witnesses, for more than 20 years, for full recognition as a religious society violated their right to freedom of religion under Article 9. The Court further stated that this more than 20-year-period hardly appeared justified in regard to religious groups that were well-established both nationally and internationally, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Therefore, the Court concluded that this difference in treatment violated their rights under Article 14 read in conjunction with Article 9. (Religionsgemeinschaft der Zeugen Jehovas and Others v. Austria, no. 40825/98, § § 78, 79, 98, 31 July 2008)

The spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Austria, Johann Zimmermann, says: “The Court’s decision strengthens its earlier ruling that a nationally and internationally well-established religious group such as Jehovah’s Witnesses should have been recognized as a religious society long ago and that the resultant discrimination they endured violated their fundamental freedoms under the European Convention.”

Although Jehovah’s Witnesses are grateful for these additional favorable ECHR decisions, they are disappointed by the failure to date of the Austrian government to grant them status as a religious society. Despite the clear ruling by the ECHR on July 31, 2008, Jehovah’s Witnesses have not yet been recognized as a religious society. On the contrary, an eight-week “survey procedure,” which would delay any action, has been arranged. In it, already recognized churches and other institutions are invited to give their opinion on the proposed recognition of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The ECHR has stated that on March 19, 2009, it will publish yet another decision in connection with the Austrian government’s violation of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ right to freedom of religion.

Further information can be found online under www.jehovas-zeugen.at.

Contact in Austria: Johann Zimmermann
Telephone: 0043-1-804 53 45-39; E-Mail: legal@at.wtbts.org

United States: Gregory Allen, Associate General Counsel,
Telephone: + (1) 845 306 1000,
E-Mail: generalcounsel@jw.org

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