The court adopted an intrusive view of the powers of the state, incompatible with democracy—and with common sense.
by Massimo Introvigne
Update (June 20, 2022): On June 7, 2022, the first degree decision unfavorable to the Jehovah’s Witnesses was overturned by the Court of Appeal of Ghent, which concluded that shunning can be freely taught and practiced in Belgium.
In California, a woman called Mayra Gomez has been cut off from her family and many friends. Her 21-year-old son told her, “You are no longer my mother,” and informed Mayra she had been permanently excluded from his life.
This may look like a case of shunning for religious reason, but it isn’t. Mayra Gomez is a supporter of Donald Trump, while her son and most of her friends voted Democrat. In the heated climate of current American politics, this was reason enough for shunning her. Nor is Mayra’s case isolated. Hundreds of articles reporting similar incidents have been published by American media. They are not short-lived quarrels. Lawyer William Hill told the New York Times that, “his sister, who lives in Seattle, blew up at him after he voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, and they haven’t spoken since.” “Families have been torn apart by politics,” the Times commented. Of course, it goes both directions, as some Trump supporters shun friends and relatives who voted for Biden.
In Italy, a friend of mine I would call James repeatedly cheated on his wife. The wife never forgave him. For a number of reasons, connected to family properties that would be difficult to divide, they continue to live under the same roof. But they do not live “together.” His wife hardly speaks to him, takes her meal separately, sleeps in a different room, and insists he should not meet her guests and relatives when she receives them. This situation is not uncommon. In fact, Italian case law has regulated to some extent the situation of those who live “separated under the same roof,” a status which has economic and other legal consequences (for instance, they cannot adopt a child) but is not illegal.
A democratic state may regret these situations, but cannot compel Mayra Gomez’s son and friends, or James’s wife, to behave otherwise. Nor can it punish anti-Trump or pro-Trump Web sites that suggest that those with different political opinions are bad people and should be shunned, or the publishers of Christian books suggesting that when a spouse systematically cheats on the other, if economic reasons prevent physical separation, compelling the guilty party to live “separated under the same roof” is appropriate. Only an Orwellian “Big Brother” state may believe that it has the power to regulate such details of private lives. Trying to compel people to “be friends” or love is the perfection of totalitarianism. It is also against common sense. In Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother compels the citizens to pretend that they all love the state and their neighbors. Not even Big Brother can create feelings of affection where they do not exist.
Reading the decision of the Court of Ghent of March 16, 2021, which has fined the Jehovah’s Witnesses for their practice of shunning, leaves a distinct feeling that Big Brother is back, and this time he has got judges on his side.
As I mentioned in a previous article, the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is different from Ms. Gomez’s and other victims of the heated American political controversies, and from my friend James’. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not shun immediate blood relatives. A Jehovah’s Witness would not say “You are no longer my mother” to a mother who has been disfellowshipped, nor will he or she live “separated under the same roof” with a spouse who has left the congregation. As I have explained, blood ties remain, together with the hope that the proverbial prodigal son whose story is told by the Christian Gospel in Luke 15 may one day “return home.” It is also important to note that one does not become a Jehovah’s Witnesses by birth. Becoming a Jehovah’s Witness is a personal choice made at an informed age. In fact, many whose parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses freely decide not to join the organization.
Some may argue that another difference is that Ms. Gomez’s son and James’ wife and friends decided “spontaneously,” as individuals, to shun Ms. Gomez and James, while in the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses there is an organization “inciting” others to practice shunning. This objection would be, however, naïve and based on a fallacy well-known to social scientists, that regards each behavior as if it were an individual, atomistic decision taken outside of a social context. In fact, we behave in a certain way because we have been socialized into a certain culture. No doubt Ms. Gomez’s son has been “incited” by Web sites and political organizations to regard Trump supporters as monsters who deserve to be shunned (again, the same would be true at the other end of the political spectrum). James’ wife and friends believe that marital infidelity deserves radical forms of punishment because they have been socialized into a subculture that justifies and promotes their behavior. By looking carefully, a Big-Brother-like court would surely find organizations and perhaps religious organizations that have “incited” this behavior. And this is what my hypothetical examples of courts of law looking into Ms. Gomez and James’ situation have in common with the Ghent case, although no Jehovah’s Witnesses would share the radical words of Ms. Gomez’s son nor the behavior of James’ wife.
In the Ghent case, one of the plaintiffs told the court that “she was expelled [from the Jehovah’s Witnesses] because she left her first husband for another man. Since then, she has not seen her sister, her husband and their children nor her mother.” The Ghent judges blame this on the “ostracism” policy of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It seems these judges of a criminal court may use a few days listening to the parties when divorce cases are heard in family courts. They will learn that it is very common that a spouse who left for somebody else is shunned by family members. It would be bizarre in the extreme that courts would try to compel these relatives to keep their relationship with the person they now regard as the family’s black sheep, or would investigate whether their religion, teachings they have received about morality, or education determined this choice, punishing the institutions responsible for it. That is, unless the courts believe that, like Big Brother, they should re-organize human and family relationship as they deem fit.
There was even something called the Interfederal Center for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Discrimination and Racism (UNIA) that intervened in the Ghent case and was awarded 500 euro in moral and material damages. One wonders whether UNIA also plans to intervene in all divorce cases heard in Belgium, and claim damages every time friends or relatives of a spouse who has left for another partner find the conduct unpalatable and decide to shun the guilty party.
The Ghent judges wrote, in so many words, that they “hope” that their decision will compel the Jehovah’s Witnesses to “adjust their exclusion policy without delay.” We do not need to bother Max Weber to remind the honorable judges that in a religious body organization is theology and, unlike Big Brother, courts in democratic countries, and certainly those subject to the European Convention on Human Rights, do not have the power to tell a religious group how to organize internally or interpret the Bible. Ruling in similar cases, courts all over the world have recognized that this applies to the “exclusion policy” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
However, the danger created by the Court of Ghent goes beyond religious liberty. It has a bitter taste of totalitarianism. It implies that the state may intrude into the private life of citizens, and tell them how they should react to choices and behaviors they do not like. Implicitly, the decision means that my friend James’ wife may be compelled to love him, even if she does not, and eat with him and talk to him, even if she does not want to. It means that friends and relatives who have decided to shun those who in their opinion made intolerable political choices may be compelled by courts of law to remain friends with them. Since this is obviously impossible, the decisions implies that judges may go on and look for institutions, religious and otherwise, that promote or justify their behavior, and punish them. Write a book suggesting that a spouse should separate, if necessary “under the same roof,” from the spouse who is systematically cheating, and expect to be prosecuted in criminal court. Yes, Big Brother is back. Welcome to Nineteen Eighty-Four.