The case of a disfellowshipped woman who demanded that courts compel the Jehovah’s Witnesses to readmit her was widely misinterpreted by the media.
by Massimo Introvigne
The European Court of Human Rights put an end to a bizarre Norwegian legal saga where a court of appeal, later corrected by the Supreme Court, claimed that secular judges can order a religious organization, in this case the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to readmit a member it had excluded.
The saga generated a significant media coverage in Norway, and a good deal of misunderstanding. The anti-cult narrative, fueled by “apostate” ex-members, inspired several articles. One newspaper reported the statement by the (now disbarred) lawyer representing the excluded female member that, by ruling in favor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Norwegian Supreme Court “allowed the introduction of religious special courts in Norway. We should not have Sharia-like courts,” the lawyer said.
This was a misleading statement, since Sharia courts in Muslim countries rule on issues with civil effects such as the validity of marriages or how heritages should be distributed, while the judicial committees of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as it happens with the ecclesiastic tribunals of several other religions, ruled in this case on an internal ecclesiastical matter, i.e., whether a member should be excluded from the religious organizations.
Others insisted that the “human rights” of the excluded member had been violated. Rolf Furuli, a professor emeritus of Semitic languages at the University of Oslo and a disfellowshipped Jehovah’s Witness himself, told reporters that he believed the European Court of Human Rights should affirm that religious liberty includes the right “to practice and express [one’s] faith within the religion [one] has chosen, and together with fellow believers to preach to others” on behalf of that religion.
In fact, there is no such right. Religious organizations have the right to exclude those members that they believe have violated their rules. The religious liberty of the excluded members is protected by the fact that they remain free to join and even establish a new religious organization, and preach to others on its behalf.
Some Norwegian media tried to introduce in the case the question of the so-called ostracism or shunning. Since Jehovah’s Witnesses are counseled to avoid associating with disfellowshipped former members, it was argued that the risk that she would be shunned justified the court of appeal’s order to the Jehovah’s Witnesses to readmit her. In fact, courts in several countries have ruled that the practice of shunning cannot be prohibited without violating both freedom of religion or belief and the personal liberty we all have to decide with whom we want, or do not want, to associate.
Considering what exactly happened is also important. Bitter Winter covered the previous installments of the saga by mentioning only the initials of the woman who started the case, Gry Helen Nygård, but she has now decided to go public with her real name.
In 2018, Nygård, a married woman, went to a restaurant in Oslo with a divorced male Jehovah’s Witness, after which they went to the man’s hotel room. They started kissing and fondling. Then, she fell asleep and woke up the next morning, naked and with the man on top of her. Later, the man told her he had started engaging in oral sex with her while she was asleep.
Or this was what she reported to an ecclesiastical judicial committee of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which convened after she had told her story to the elders of her congregation. In the subsequent court case, she denied the kissing and fondling part, and said she had visited the man’s room just to recover a coat she had left there. Then she decided to take a nap in the room, but while sleeping she was raped.
The judicial committee found that her behavior had been immoral, and she was Biblically unrepentant, so she was disfellowshipped in 2018. She appealed, and an ecclesiastical appeal committee confirmed the verdict.
Only after she had been disfellowshipped, she started describing what has happened to her as rape, but, rather than suing the man who had allegedly raped her, she challenged her local congregation before secular courts asking to be readmitted. On June 5, 2019, a Conciliation Board sided with her, and declared the decision of disfellowshipping her invalid. The Jehovah’s Witnesses took the case to the Follo District Court, which on February 27, 2020, reversed the Conciliation Board’s verdict and decided that secular courts cannot “review the decisions of a religious community that require an assessment of religious issues.”
However, on July 9, 2021, the Borgarting Court of Appeal reversed the decision of the District Court. Two out of three appeal judges stated that “it would be offensive to the general sense of justice if someone is excluded from a religious community on the basis of something that it is possibly a rape,” and ordered the Jehovah’s Witnesses to readmit the woman within their fold.
On May 3, 2022, the Supreme Court of Norway with a unanimous decision (5-0) reversed the strange appeal verdict, and confirmed that religious and theological assessment are not open to review by secular judges.
Nygård then took her case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which has now rejected her complaint without giving any further reason, which is common when the ECHR regards complaints as clearly unfounded.
But, as mentioned earlier, Nygård has also taken her case to a different court, the media. Some of them even attacked the Jehovah’s Witnesses by claiming that the courts have protected their right to disfellowship a raped woman because she has been raped. This is a factually incorrect reconstruction of the case, since the ecclesiastical judicial committee of the Jehovah’s Committee disfellowshipped Nygård for the behavior she confessed to have engaged in “before” what she later qualified as a rape.
What eluded some media is that the legal case was not about whether Nygård had been raped or not—she could have had a verdict on this by filing a complaint against the man involved. The case was on whether secular judges can second-guess a verdict of exclusion from a religious organization issued by an ecclesiastical body and based on a theological evaluation. There are dozens of decisions of courts all over the world, including on cases about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, stating that excluding a member from a religious body is a matter that cannot be reviewed by secular courts. The Supreme Court of Norway and the ECHR have just confirmed this fundamental principle of religious liberty.
Why did some media misunderstand the case? The reason is not so much a lack of legal culture, but a general bias of the media against minority religions, which often leads them to accept at face value claims by “apostate” ex-members and anti-cultists rather than examining the facts dispassionately and consult those academic scholars who may offer a neutral point of view on organizations such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses that they have studied for years.
Anti-cultists’ stories are more sensational. Some journalists may believe they will attract more attention. But that does not mean that they are true. Happily, there are cases such as this one where the highest courts of law do not buy them.