Jehovah's Witnesses and the Responsibility of Religious Freedom: The European Experience
Wah, Carolyn R., Journal of Church and State
A consideration of the religious organization known as Jehovah's Witnesses and the treatment they have received from mainstream religions, judicial systems, anti-cult movements, and the media presents an interesting study of the tensions between political interests, with the emotion-laden issues surrounding the study of new religious movements, and ethical interests, with the responsibilities of objective treatment required by all the constitutional provisions of the members of the European Union. Jehovah's Witnesses are not a new religious movement (NRM),' although they are exclusively religious. just as the definition of religion varies, the definition of a "new religious movement" also has variations. According to Eileen Barker, an NRM is a relatively new organization that has become "visible in its present form since the Second World War."2 On this single element, the fact that the active printing of the religious magazine, The Watchtower, has continued uninterrupted since 1879, and the central corporate structure has been in use continuously since its incorporation in Allegheny, Pennsylvania in 1884, Jehovah's Witnesses fail to meet a critical criterion of Barker's definition of an NRM. Although Jehovah's Witnesses are not an NRM, some governments group Jehovah's Witnesses with other NRMs for reasons later discussed in this essay. Now active in some 235 countries and island groups, Jehovah's Witnesses number nearly six million active members.3
Although Jehovah's Witnesses describe their religion as both Biblebased and Christian, their religious practices, particularly their active proselytism, have not gained the popular approval of the large mainstream religions. This antagonism is due in part to the Witnesses' zealous condemnation of involvement with, and support of, political activities and military efforts on the part of mainstream churches. As church membership declined and the Witnesses continued to grow in numbers, the mainstream churches resented the Witnesses' proselytism and sought government restraints on that activity in order to stem the decline in their own memberships. Former Witnesses fed unsubstantiated erroneous information about the Witnesses to the media and to government sources, and church-controlled media used its influence to disseminate information designed to place the Witnesses in a negative light. In response to governmental bans, confiscation of their property, and public mobbings, Witnesses resorted to civil litigation as a tool to define and protect their religious liberty rights. The Witnesses sought judicial, rather than legislative or executive, relief because the civil courts were in the best position to objectively evaluate the reliability and relevance of testimony and evidence. In many countries, the civil courts have consistently protected the rights of the corporate entities as well as the rights of individual Witnesses.
This essay is divided into three parts. Part one will briefly explore the organization, beliefs, and history of Jehovah's Witnesses in Europe, including their persecution by Nazi, Fascist, and Communist regimes. Part two will explore the creation and methodology of the European Parliamentary Enquete Commissions designed to examine sects and so-called psychology groups. It will also discuss the European legislative and administrative reactions to the Enquete Commissions' reports. Part three will explore several recent child custody cases decided in favor of the Witness parent and will offer an explanation as to why the findings of the best interests hearing are often so different from the reports in the media, which often allege that Witnesses neglect and abuse their children, and the findings of governmental administrative agencies, which often rely on the misinformation disseminated by the media as well as unsupported claims of former members and mainstream churches.
I. ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE, BELIEFS, AND HISTORY OF JEHOVAH'S …
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Publication information: Article title: Jehovah's Witnesses and the Responsibility of Religious Freedom: The European Experience. Contributors: Wah, Carolyn R. - Author. Journal title: Journal of Church and State. Volume: 43. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 2001. Page number: 579+. © 1999 J.M. Dawson Studies in Church and State. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.