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In a move that’s both long overdue and shocking, the Norwegian government said it would no longer provide funding to the Jehovah’s Witnesses because of the religious sect’s cult-like practices.

Norway’s odd relationship with religion

Norway, which has a national Church but no longer has a national religion, is one of those countries where religion is literally supported by taxpayers; the more members you have, the more money your preferred religious (or Humanist) organization receives. Any “religious” group with 50 registered members are allowed to apply for state subsidies, and more than 800 groups receive that kind of funding.

The law is very open regarding the kinds of religious or non-religious groups that can receive that money. However there are some lines in the sand:

If a religious or philosophical community, or individuals acting on behalf of the community, commits violence or coercion, makes threats, violates children’s rights, violates statutory discrimination prohibitions or in other ways seriously violates the rights and freedoms of others, society may be denied grants or grants may be suspended. Grants may also be refused or reduced if society encourages or provides support for violations mentioned in this section.

Religious or philosophical communities that accept grants from states that do not respect the right to freedom of religion or belief may be denied grants.

That makes sense. A group that endorses violence shouldn’t get taxpayer money, nor should any group hurting children or violating human rights. Sure, there are atheists who might argue that any form of religious indoctrination is child abuse, but these rules are theoretically limited to things that are irrefutable and not up for debate.

More specifically, groups that receive those subsidies can’t force people to remain members. They can’t ban interactions with non-members. They can’t make children pledge a lifelong commitment to them. If they cross those boundaries, then their groups might lose that government funding.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses in Norway

According to the Norwegian government’s Ministry of Children and Family Affairs, in 2021, there were 12,686 registered Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country. That number meant taxpayers were on the hook to give the Witnesses more than NOK 16 million (roughly $1,778,793 in U.S. dollars) in support. About $140 per member.

Last year, the government said it would begin looking into the Witnesses after two former members and a separate (anonymous) whistleblower sent letters explaining that the Witnesses were in violation of the rules. It’s not that the JW beliefs were secrets or anything. It’s more likely that government officials needed to act deliberately and get their paperwork in order before they could take any kind of action. Those letters got the ball rolling.

Some of those claims were debatable. For example, the Witnesses say members can’t get involved in politics, and that means JWs never vote in elections. One former member argued that since voting in an election could lead to expulsion by the Witnesses — which means members couldn’t interact with you — that qualified as a violation of the rules. The Witnesses responded by saying they had every right to set their own policies, and if someone wanted to vote, they were freely deciding to leave the fold. There was nothing coercive about it.

But there were other concerns that the government took very seriously.

The concerns about the JWs

In a written statement from the state administrator in Oslo and Viken, there are two Jehovah’s Witness beliefs that are particularly egregious as far as the law goes:

  1. The Witnesses engage in the practice of Disfellowshipping. That means former JWs who leave the religion are effectively excommunicated. Members are told not to have any interactions with them. The idea here is that the former members will get so lonely or depressed that they’ll eventually come crawling back. There’s no shortage of families that have been torn apart because of this.

    The state administrator wrote that Norwegian law requires all religions that receive government subsidies to practice a “right to free withdrawal.” If there’s a serious obstacle to leaving a religion, that’s arguably a violation of the law. Disfellowshipping, the administrator wrote, “can cause members to feel pressured to remain in the faith community.”
  2. A similar policy applies to children. If a child in a JW family “makes it a habit to break the moral standards of the Bible and does not repent,” the Witnesses teach, they are also to be treated as pariahs. That means a young teenager (baptized or not) who quits the religion is subject to exclusion from religious members.

    While their immediate families don’t have to kick them out of the house, the state administrator said the Witnesses believe that child can no longer “have contact with other close family (including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins) or friends.” That puts pressure on the child to remain in the fold — a violation of their own rights under the law. (“We consider social isolation as a form of punishment against the child.”)

Because of those two “systematic and intentional” offenses, neither of which can be denied by the Witnesses themselves, the state administrator concluded that the Witnesses are not deserving of the subsidies. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are still allowed to practice their faith, of course. They just won’t get any taxpayer money for it.

They Jehovah’ed themselves out of nearly $2 million.

The Witnesses say they plan to appeal the decision. (On what grounds? Who knows.)

Fabian Fond at the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Scandinavia, writes in an e-mail to NRK that they are disappointed:

“The decision will be appealed. The appeal process will give us an opportunity to clearly explain why our faith and religious practices fully respect the rights and freedoms of others.”

Fond further writes that no one is forced or pressured to become, or continue to be, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses:

“It is worth noting that trials in several lands have confirmed the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses to exclude persons who choose not to live by the moral standards of the Bible. As a registered religious community in Norway, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been eligible to receive government grants for more than 30 years. “

I would just repeat that the Witnesses still maintain the right to exclude non-members. What they don’t have is a right to be rewarded for it. For a group of people who want nothing to do with the government, they’re certainly upset over not receiving a government handout.

But the decision isn’t unfair. The Catholic Church (just to name one example) has its share of problems, too, but if you quit the Church, there’s no formal policy in place designed to make you suffer for it. You might have arguments with family members, and you might struggle with the loss of a community with shared beliefs (at least for a while), but the Church itself doesn’t go out of its way to make your life worse. Jehovah’s Witnesses do.

If nothing else, this move by the Norwegian government will push other religious groups to take a fresh look at their own policies. If they want access to taxpayer money, they need to play by the rules.

Conservatives in the country are already furious over this. In a TV interview last week, one commentator argued that the government was just going after religions they didn’t like — as if the JW funding decision was a slippery slope that would lead to future funding bans on religious groups that oppose LGBTQ+ rights. The government official quickly rejected that position and said that beliefs were irrelevant; it was the undeniable actions of the Witnesses that mattered. That’s why they weren’t going to receive the subsidies.

Why this matters

In the U.S., the IRS prohibits churches from telling people how to vote. If they break those rules, they stand to lose their non-profit status, which would be a death blow for many of them. But because the IRS pretty much ignores those violations for a whole host of reasons, we’ve seen plenty of conservative Christian churches have their cake and eat it too. They get to function like an arm of the Republican Party while receiving all the benefits of a non-profit group. Unless the government enforces its own rules, those rules are worthless.

In Norway, with this decision, the government is making it clear that religious institutions aren’t going to get a free pass just because they happen to be religious. The Jehovah’s Witnesses deserve to lose their funding. So do any other groups acting in the same awful ways.

The subsidies have unintended consequences

These Norwegian religious subsidies have led to some fascinating (and unintentional) effects, mostly because citizens are now wise to the fact that they don’t need to prop up churches for which they hold no special allegiance. (They still have to pay a church tax, so to speak — which is a very different kind of problem altogether — but less money given to certain institutions means more money for the remaining ones.)

For example, in 2016, the nation’s evangelical Lutheran Church launched a website to make it easier to track members and enroll new ones… but that plan backfired after thousands of people used the website to opt out of Church membership altogether, depriving the Church of that government funding. (Considering that roughly 75% of the country were officially members, though, the exodus wasn’t all that shocking. They realistically could only go lower.)

There was also a mini-scandal in 2015 when the Catholic Church owed the Norwegian government more than $5 million for “fraudulently registering thousands of people on its membership lists” precisely because they got taxpayer money for that act of manipulation. No wonder that after the Church created an app for members, more than 11,000 Norwegians resigned shortly thereafter because it was simple to remove themselves from the membership rolls.

Those weren’t just symbolic acts. The reason so many people actively went through the motions of getting off those membership rolls was because they didn’t want the government giving those institutions money in their name. There are plenty of people there (as in the United States) who just keep a Catholic or Lutheran label because their families raised them in those traditions or they simply don’t care enough to go through the formal process of changing it. But those subsidies have pushed some people to formally declare themselves not Catholic or not Lutheran. It just shows you how many religious institutions in Norway have financially benefitted from the apathy of many of their own lapsed members.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.