BELGIUM: The decision of the Court of Ghent against Jehovah’s Witnesses is dangerous for the Catholic Church
Willy Fautré, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers
HRWF (17.03.2021) – Catholic priests in Belgium and all other countries are forbidden from blessing same-sex couples and are at risk of being prosecuted for discriminating against homosexuals, as a consequence of a judgment issued yesterday by the Court of Ghent against Jehovah’s Witnesses. On 16 March, the First Instance Court of Ghent condemned the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (CCJW) to a fine of 12,000 EUR on the ground that their teachings about the social distancing of their members from excluded members and other ex-members amount to discrimination and incitement to hatred.
The Catholic Church and the ban on the blessing of homosexual couples
In the last few days, in a message approved by Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic Church announced it cannot bless same-sex marriages regardless of how stable or positive the couples’ relationship may be. That statement came in response to recent questions whether the church should reflect the increasing social and notably legal acceptance of same-sex unions.
“Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?” the question asked, to which the response was “Negative.” The Vatican added that that marriage should be limited to a union between a man and a woman, and that same-sex marriage is not part of God’s plan for family and raising children.
Explaining this decision in a lengthy note, the Holy See referred to same-sex unions as a “choice” and described them as sinful.
“The blessing of homosexual unions cannot be considered licit,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote in the statement.
God “does not and cannot bless sin,” the statement added.
This doctrine stated and to be strictly implemented by the clergy was fixed by the Catholic Church in Rome on the basis of its interpretation of the Bible.
Catholic priests in Belgium and all other countries are therefore forbidden from blessing same-sex couples and are at risk of being prosecuted for discrimination against homosexuals and incitement to hatred.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ case
On 16 February, a trial started against the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (CCJW) at the criminal court of Ghent (East Flanders) on the alleged grounds of discrimination and incitement to hatred with a particular focus on their shunning (ostracization) practice in cases of disfellowshipping (exclusion) and disassociation (voluntary resignation).
A former Jehovah’s Witness who had voluntarily left the movement in 2011, filed a criminal complaint against the CCJW in 2015, and managed to have it supported by over a dozen more former Jehovah’s Witnesses.
According to the internal religious practice of Jehovah’s Witnesses, when the elders of a local congregation exclude a member or are notified about a voluntary resignation, they make a short neutral public announcement which states: “[Name of person] is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses”. The CCJW is not involved in the making of that neutral announcement but is notified about the decision.
In their conclusions provided to the Court before the trial, they said that they do not segregate excluded or resigning members as these can always attend their religious services. They also point out that baptized Jehovah’s Witnesses who no longer actively associate with fellow believers, are not shunned.
Clarifying the relations between Jehovah’s Witnesses and disfellowshipped or disassociated family members, they say: “In the immediate household, although the ‘religious ties’ the expelled or disassociated person had with his family change, … blood ties remain. The marriage relationship and normal family affections and dealings continue.” In other words, normal family affection and association continues.
In addition, the CCJW had provided the Court with nine statements of individuals who had been excluded and who had since been reinstated as Jehovah’s Witnesses. In their testimonies, they explained how they had been fairly treated by congregation elders, family, and others in the congregation when they were excluded.
The social distancing doctrine stated and practiced by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Belgium and all other countries was fixed by their Central College in the United States on the basis of their interpretation of the Bible.
The CCJW considers it is not legally responsible for the intra-familial relations between its members and former members, as it is an individual choice.
Are we on the way to put in the dock the Bible, the interpretation and the implementation of its doctrines fixed by the highest religious authorities and powers in the name of interpretations and implementation of human rights fixed by national judicial powers? If so, this would be a pandora box that would affect other religions and other holy scriptures.
Contrary to rumors spread by opponents, the Witnesses do not suggest that immediate family members shun relatives who left the faith.
Contrary to other courts in several countries, the Belgian judges dangerously intruded into the internal organization of a religious group.