The year 2023 ends with a good news for the Christian Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Belgium. The Belgian Supreme Court definitively puts an end to the Ghent case, reaffirming the legitimacy of the practice, adopted by Jehovah's Witnesses and, essentially, by all religions and human associational groups, political or otherwise, of severing relations with those who have disaffiliated or been expelled from the congregation. The Belgian Supreme Court's ruling follows the motivations with which, in 2021, the Court of First Instance of Rome had acquitted the Jehovah's Witnesses of the charge of ostracism brought against them by a former member in a case similar to that of Ghent.
The Belgian Court of Cassation upholds the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses to exclude members
A final decision largely ignored by the Belgian media
HRWF (30.12.2023) – On 19 December 2023, the Belgian Court of Cassation definitively ruled that the religious beliefs and practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses concerning disfellowshipping, including their beliefs to limit contacts with disfellowshipped former congregants, is perfectly lawful and is part of freedom of association as well as freedom of religion.
Short history of the case
In 2015, a former Jehovah’s Witness went to the public prosecutor’s office, claiming that once members left the community, they were ostracised and completely socially isolated by order of the organization.
The public prosecutor’s office in Ghent summoned Jehovah’s Witnesses on four counts: incitement to discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs against a person, and against a group, and incitement to hatred or violence against a person, and against a group.
In 2020, a prosecutor charged Jehovah’s Witnesses for allegedly violating Article 22 of the Anti-Discrimination Act. The case received extensive media coverage in March 2021, when the trial judge issued a controversial ruling in favor of the prosecutor and the individual complainants. The trial decision was widely criticized by international legal experts. The Belgian Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed the decision.
On 7 June 2022, the Ghent Court of Appeal — applying the extensive case law of the European Court of Human Rights — reversed the first instance court decision and fully acquitted the Belgian Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses of all charges of discrimination and incitement to hatred. The Court of Appeal of Ghent hereby confirmed that Jehovah’s Witnesses’ biblical practice of limiting or avoiding contact with former followers, also called shunning, was legal and does not incite discrimination, segregation, hatred or violence.
The Cassation Court rejected the appeal of UNIA, an Inter-federal Center against discrimination
The Inter-federal Center For Equal Opportunities And Fight Against Discrimination And Racism (UNIA) took sides with the former Jehovah’s Witnesses but their appeal was rejected, on 19 December 2023, by the Court of Cassation.
In its ruling, the Court of Cassation decisively rejected all arguments made by UNIA and the individual complainants and fully upheld the decision of the Ghent Court of Appeal. The Court of Cassation ruled that the “avoidance policy” of Jehovah’s Witnesses (referred to by the Ghent Court of Appeal as “passive social avoidance”) “is legal and that the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees to “everyone”, including congregants, the right to decide with whom to maintain social contacts.
The Cassation Court’s judgment is fully in line with the case law of the European Court of Human Rights and is consistent with similar decisions of appeal courts and Supreme Courts in many countries worldwide, such as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Poland, South Africa and the United States.
Jehovah’s Witnesses declared in a press release that they are grateful to the highest legal institutions of Belgian for having cleared their good name and reputation.
The first court decision against Jehovah’s Witnesses had initially made the headlines of printed media outlets and TV channels but the final decision of the Court of Cassation in their favor was ignored, including by UNIA, which as of 30 December had still not published anything about the case.