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November 2018: Row over municipal pastor
Presenting its proposed budget for 2019 in November, the city council of the municipality of Kongsberg suggested creating a new position for a “municipal (...)

  • November 2018: Row over municipal pastor

Presenting its proposed budget for 2019 in November, the city council of the municipality of Kongsberg suggested creating a new position for a “municipal pastor”, to work across different municipal sectors, focusing in particular on mental health, youth work, ethical issues, counselling and healthcare. The proposal is controversial because it comes shortly after the much-publicized separation of the church and the State in Norway. It has been met with criticism from opposition parties in the municipality, the Norwegian Humanist Association, and the leadership of the local mosque.

  • November 2018: Increased promotion of freedom of religion or belief internationally

On November 12th, the Norwegian minister of foreign affairs Ine Eriksen Søreide hosted a conference on the promotion of freedom of religion or belief as a priority in Norwegian human rights work at the international level. During the conference, the minister announced a significant financial contribution to this work, promising a yearly expenditure of NOK 80 mill. (approx. EUR 8 mill.). The funds will support the political work of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for the promotion of the Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB) and work on the ground in a number of countries worldwide by NGOs like the Stefanus Alliance International, Open Doors and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

  • November 2018: Religious discrimination and handshake cases

In November, the recently reformed Board on Discrimination issued its decisions in two complaints of discrimination lodged by a claimant who claimed to have suffered religious discrimination under the new Equality and Anti-Discrimination Law, which entered into force in 2018. According to the complaints, the claimant had been discriminated against by employees of NAV (the Norwegian Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration) and Oslo Municipality when he lost his work placement contract at a school in Oslo because he refused to shake hands with women for religious reasons.

In the case against Oslo Municipality, the Discrimination Board determined in a split decision (3-2) that the termination of his work placement contract did not constitute discrimination because refusing to shake hands with women was not “central” to his religious beliefs, and because his right to manifest his religion or belief was legitimately limited by the rights of others to equality and non-discrimination.

In the case against NAV, the Discrimination Board determined in a joint, split decision (4-1 and 3-2) that both the verbal treatment of the claimant by NAV employees and the decision by NAV to cut his benefits on the basis of his refusal to shake hands with women constituted unlawful discrimination on the basis of his religion.

  • October 2018: Conscientious objection of medical practitioners

On October 11th, the Supreme Court decided a case on the termination of a general medical practitioner agreement between Sauherad municipality in the South-West of Norway and a doctor who refused to insert contraceptive intrauterine devices (IUDs) for conscientious reasons.

The highly anticipated decision found in favor of the doctor, not because the contract termination violated her right to conscientious objection, but because the municipality had known about her observation while entering into the agreement. Notably, the decision, which was written by former European Court of Human Rights judge Erik Møse, featured an extensive obiter dictum, in which the right of women to access health services was found to be a legitimate limitation of the right of freedom of religion or belief under article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

  • August 2018: Ban on full-face garments in higher education enters into effect

On August 1st, § 7-9 of the Act relating to universities and university colleges entered into force, prohibiting the wearing of garments that cover the face, either in part or in full, while taking part in education in universities or university colleges. Students violating the ban can be expelled, while staff can be fired. Although the ban was hotly debated before being passed into law, no cases have so far been recorded.

  • February 2018: Parliament sets aside special funds for the education of religious leaders

At the end of 2017, the Norwegian parliament set aside a special, annual allotment of NOK 5 million (approx. EUR 520 000) for the Faculty of theology at the University of Oslo, to “establish an official, Norwegian education for religious leaders”. The faculty will develop its studies over the following years along two tracks in order to fulfill this task: one track will provide students with training in Islamic theology, the other track will provide students from a range of religious traditions with a master’s degree in counselling and other religious leader-related tasks.

D 11 December 2018    AHelge Årsheim


December 2017: Court cases against the Catholic Church concerning membership fraud
Over the course of 2017, Oslo District Court (the court of first instance) heard two separate cases on (...)

  • December 2017: Court cases against the Catholic Church concerning membership fraud

Over the course of 2017, Oslo District Court (the court of first instance) heard two separate cases on membership registration in the Catholic Diocese of Oslo. In both cases, the Diocese was charged with membership fraud. The diocese reported as members a large number of individuals who had never registered with the Diocese as members of the Church to the authorities. It received, thus, an inflated rate of per capita financial compensation. In the period from 2011 to 2014, the Diocese, which had experienced a rapid growth in congregants and participants in their services following an influx of labor migrants from Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries, estimated their membership by looking up “Catholic-sounding” surnames in the phone book.

In the first court case, the Diocese sued the state after receiving a claim of back payments of approximate NOK 40 million (EUR 4 mill), arguing that their “phone book practice” was comparable to that of the Nordic churches, all of which receive financial compensation in Norway based on the national registry, and not on specific membership, and that the claim of back payments, therefore, constituted religious discrimination. The Diocese lost the case, but lodged an appeal, and the case is currently pending before the Borgarting Court of Appeal.

In the second court case, the former head of finances in the Diocese and the Diocese itself were charged with gross negligence after the Diocese refused to pay a fine of NOK 1 million for their membership practice. While the head of finances was acquitted, the Diocese was convicted, and charged with a fine of NOK 2 million. The Diocese has still not decided whether it will be lodging an appeal.

  • December 2017: Withdrawal of State Support to the Islamic Council of Norway

Following a protracted period of turbulence, infighting and unrest within the Islamic Council of Norway, an umbrella organization founded to act as a uniting organization to further the interest of Muslims in Norway, the Minister of Culture decided to cancel the annual state support to the organization, opening up the remainder of the funding for 2017 to other initiatives that can enhance further competence and knowledge on religious dialogue in Norwegian society. Numerous organizations have applied for the support, including Muslim Dialogue Network, a recently-started organization uniting the five largest mosque communities in Norway, who collectively cancelled their membership in the Islamic Council earlier in 2017.

  • September 2017: New draft law on the Church of Norway and other religious and life stance communities

In September 2017, the Government announced a draft legislation for the regulation of the Church of Norway and the financing of other religious and life stance communities. The new law will replace the Act on Faith Communities (1969), the Act Relating to Allocations to Religious Communities (1981) and the Church Act (1996), and represents the most significant legal change following the 2012 constitutional amendments altering the relationship between church and state.

In line with the new § 16 of the Constitution, the draft law provides a set of regulations on the “system” of the Church of Norway, and a set of regulations for the allotment of state support to other religious and life stance communities. Additionally, the draft law introduces a set of new criteria for state support, including a minimum of 500 members, an age limit of 15 for support-generating members and the possibility to withdraw support for communities that break the law, encourage harmful child rearing or receive funding from states that do not respect the freedom of religion or belief. Additionally, the law specifies conditions for exclusive support to the Church of Norway, which is conditional on expenses that maintain church buildings dating from before 1900, expenses made for public services and expenses that are specifically tied to the status of the Church of Norway as the “established” church of the state.

The draft law is subject to a public hearing, before the Ministry of Culture presents a revised version to parliament in 2018. Parliamentary consideration is likely to be postponed until the Ministry finalizes its much awaited white paper on religious policy.

June 2017: Restrictions on the full face veil

For several years, the question of prohibiting the niqab, the Muslim full face veil, has been percolating in the Norwegian public debate. Following the S.A.S. v. France decision of the European Court of Human Rights (2014) (see Europe > 2014 Current debates), where the French ban on wearing the niqab in public was upheld, the debate briefly reawakened, but failed to gain traction. After scattered incidents where students at universities and colleges have been dismissed for their use of the garment, the debate has become more entrenched, leading to discussions of the ban in parliament in 2015 and to an increasing debate in the fall of 2016, as political parties position themselves before the upcoming parliamentary election in 2017. As of September 2016, statements by leaders of the major political parties on the need to restrict the use of the niqab in educational institutions seem to indicate a parliamentary majority in favor of a limited ban.

In June of 2017, the Government presented a draft bill which would prohibit the full face veil for employees, pupils and students in all educational institutions, public or private, from kindergarten and up to universities. While there have been some discussions on the issue, particularly regarding higher education and in terms of sanctions, the bill is likely to be adopted with a clear majority.

March 2017: Restrictions on religious symbols in the workplace

In March, following a long and protracted conflict between the municipal authorities in Stavanger and the board at Blidensol, a privately-run healthcare facility, on the legality of a dress code banning the Islamic veil among staff, the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Tribunal found in favor of the municipality, pronouncing the incompatibility between the dress code and the Anti-Discrimination laws (see Equality and Non-Discrimination).
While this local conflict is still unresolved, the initiative to prohibit the veil as part of a work uniform, together with the recent decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Case C-157/15 (Samira Achbita v. G4S Secure Solutuions NV), which found that the prohibition of the Islamic veil as part of the uniform of a security company did not constitute direct discrimination, have led to renewed interest in the issue in Norwegian public debate. So far, the most tangible result has been the proposal to ban all “conspicuous religious symbols” among staff in Oslo municipality, a case that is still pending before the City Council.

February 2017: Conscientious objection beyond military service

Since 2013, the limits of conscientious objections, in particular for health workers, has been an ongoing concern in politics and the public debate. While the majority of the debate has circled around the rights of medical doctors to refuse to refer women to hospitals for abortion, the recently adopted law on the ritual circumcision of baby boys has also sparked a sharp rise in conscientious objections by surgeons. Recently, the debate has taken an unexpected turn, as a nursing student asked to be exempt from serving pork during her practice placement, a request that was turned down and met with wide disapproval.

To better clarify the limits of the conscientious objector status, a government-appointed commission submitted its recommendations in September, 2016. The commission stressed the need to preserve objector status only for deeply held convictions, and recommended a mixed approach between legally established rights to exemption and locally adapted solutions.

In February of 2017, a doctor lost her case against the State in Aust-Telemark District Court. She was fired for her refusal to provide contraceptive coils to her patients on the basis of her religious convictions. Her claim was considered subordinate to that of the right of women to full and unbridled access to contraceptives. The doctor has filed an appeal, which will be heard by Agder Appeals Court in October.

January 2017: Separation of Church and State

On January 1st, 2017, the Church of Norway gained its own legal personality for the first time since the Reformation was introduced to Norway through the Church Ordinance of 1537. The shift is significant, turning the responsibilities and duties of formerly state-employed clergy over to the Church, whose principal entity will be the General Synod. While the shift represents a new chapter in Norwegian state-church relations, significant challenges remain, not least relating to the specific scope of the guarantee in §16 of the amended constitution, which provides that the Church of Norway will remain the established church of Norway. Another controversial issue in the wake of the separation is the financial support of other religious communities, ranging from the precise sum to be granted, to the conditions for support.

  • January 2017: Circumcision of baby boys

During the buildup to the general election in September, several political parties have discussed the question of a ban on the circumcision of baby boys, a procedure that was subject to heated debate a few years back, leading to the adoption of the Act on Ritual Circumcision of Baby Boys in 2014, in order to bring the procedure into the conventional health system (see more under Children and Parents). While the projected number of 2000 circumcisions per year based on the proportion of Muslims and Jews in the population has proven greatly exaggerated, the law has generated a considerable number of conscientious objections from doctors who refuse to perform the procedure. Although only the right-wing Progress Party, currently part of the ruling coalition, has officially called for a ban on the procedure, several other parties have discussed similar regulations.

D 18 December 2017    AHelge Årsheim


September 2016: Denial of services based on religion
In September, Jaeren District Court delivered its verdict in the case of a hairdresser accused of denying a hijab-clad woman access to her (...)

  • September 2016: Denial of services based on religion

In September, Jaeren District Court delivered its verdict in the case of a hairdresser accused of denying a hijab-clad woman access to her salon. The hairdresser also allegedly verbally abused the woman, who complained to the anti-discrimination ombudsman. The ombudsman found the hairdresser guilty of discriminatory treatment under the Ethnicity Anti-Discrimination Act, §6.

Additionally, the state prosecutor charged her with the violation of the Penal Act §186, under which the denial of services on the basis of skin color or ethnicity, religion, homosexual orientation or disability is prohibited and punishable with fines or imprisonment up to six months. Citing the hairdresser’s extensive online antagonism against Muslims and Islam, the court found her claims that her opposition to the hijab was solely motivated by the political connotations of the garment and her discomfort with encountering hijab-clad women unconvincing, handing down a fine of NOK 10 000 (approx. EUR 1100). The case has been appealed, and the hairdresser and her lawyer have signaled their intent to take the case all the way to Strasbourg if necessary.

D 22 September 2016    AHelge Årsheim

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