Religious Intolerance Intensifies
THE time: July 9, 1976. The place: a small rural school in northeast Argentina. The event: an Argentine national holiday.
Reporters for the weekly news magazine Gente were visiting the school. Why? They were interested in the precarious conditions of the school, especially because it was near the Brazilian border. Reporters had written that many people were entering the country illegally. So they visited the school to see what the situation was.
However, the reporters felt that they needed to make their article more sensational. So what did they do? They placed some children with their backs to the flag while other pupils participated in the flag ceremony. With the students in these positions, the reporters took pictures.
Their article was published on July 15. It stated that the children with their backs to the flag were Jehovah’s Witnesses! Was this so? Absolutely not! Why, the four children of Witnesses had not even attended school that day! And even if they had been there, it would have been contrary to their Christian training to show any such disrespect for the country’s flag.
So this distorted story of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ apparent lack of respect for the flag appeared in the press. And it quickly spread across the nation.
a chain reaction
The following month another incident took place in the same province of Misiones. There, two high school students and a teacher, together with the parents of the students, were arrested and jailed for 16 days. They were charged with “[contemptuous] slighting” of the country’s emblems.
Why was this charge made? Because the students had excused themselves from singing the national anthem and also the March of San Martín. Immediately, legal defense for these Witnesses was set in motion.
Meanwhile, many of their public meeting places in the provinces of Misiones, Entre Ríos and Formosa were being forcibly closed. These actions were taken by federal and provincial authorities.
The Witnesses contested this open obstruction to freedom of worship. On August 23 they filed for a writ of “amparo” (injunction) in the Federal Court in Buenos Aires.
A few days later, on August 27, Federal Judge Francisco Kalicz issued a ruling. He ordered that the Misiones Witnesses who were charged with “slighting” the national emblems be released from prison. He also ordered that they be exonerated of all charges against them!
The judge observed that “contemptuous slighting is performed with material acts.” Among these acts he listed “destroying, burning, breaking, cutting, soiling, spitting, tearing and trampling.” He also noted that such contemptuous slighting is performed “verbally (whistling, hissing) or by writing and even with offensive gestures.”
Were the Witnesses guilty of any of these things? The judge noted that “no element of weight comes forth from the proceedings that any of the ones charged might have had that intention.” He added: “To the contrary all are unanimous in asserting their respect for all the national emblems, as well as for the laws.”
Certainly, on that day, justice gained ground. But the triumph was brief—very brief. It lasted only four days!
the blow falls
On August 31, 1976, the government issued its coup de grâce. It issued Presidential Decree #1867.
Part of this decree stated: “The freedom of religion consecrated by articles 14 and 20 of the National Constitution of course finds itself limited in the sense that religious ideas should not imply the violation of laws or an attempt against public order, national security, morals or good customs.”
Yet none of those charges have ever been sustained against Jehovah’s Witnesses, as Judge Francisco Kalicz indicated in his decision.
Nevertheless, the decree went on to say: “For this reason . . . THE PRESIDENT OF THE ARGENTINE NATION DECREES:
“ARTICLE 1: The activity of the religious association ‘JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES’ or ‘THE WATCH TOWER BIBLE TRACT ASSOCIATION’ and all groups, entities, or associations directly or indirectly related to said association is prohibited in all of the territory of the Nation.
“ARTICLE 2: Likewise are prohibited (a) the papers, magazines, and all publications that openly or otherwise contribute to the doctrine under consideration; (b) the acts of proselyting and indoctrination.
“ARTICLE 3: All places where the afore-mentioned association holds meetings as well as the places where such material mentioned in Article 2 is printed, distributed or sold will be closed.
“ARTICLE 4: Through the Ministry of the Interior provisions will be adopted and instructions will be given for the carrying out of this decree.”
In connection with the government’s actions, the legal brief filed by the Ministry of the Interior’s General Direction of Legal Matters asserted: “It has not been proven . . . that the sect is devoted to religious worship, that such worship is in accord with our morals and good customs.”
Of course, the facts are just the opposite. It has been clearly proven throughout this century that Jehovah’s Witnesses are intensely devoted to religious worship. And that worship is of the highest moral caliber. Nor does it interfere with the way anyone else chooses to worship or the customs they may want to practice. Authorities all over the world, including the United States Supreme Court, have long ago established the truth of these matters.
The legal brief also contained this amazing statement: “Liberty cannot be thought of in the case of a religion that admits cannibalism, ritual murder, or polygamy, and, by the same token, a religion such as is present in this case cannot be admitted regardless of the form it takes.”
The wording of that statement might make it appear to the uninformed that somehow Jehovah’s Witnesses are connected with such things as cannibalism, ritual murder or polygamy. But that is totally false. Yet, such insinuations as these do damage, as many who are not familiar with Jehovah’s Witnesses may feel that there is some basis for these innuendos.
legal fight continues
Legal proceedings initiated by Jehovah’s Witnesses proceeded through the courts. On March 10, 1977, Federal Judge Dr. Jorge E. Cermesoni rendered a decision. He declared illegal the first article of the ban. He showed that the Executive Power had gone beyond its jurisdiction in issuing the decree. Yet, he also declared that “the sect is already prohibited . . . as a result of not being inscribed in the Registry of Cults.”
The Ministry of the Interior appealed the decision; so did Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Ministry claimed that the Executive Power does have the right to regulate constitutional guarantees. The Witnesses appealed the ruling because it had not removed the ban against them.
The matter was taken to the court of appeals. On June 23, Federal Judges Alberto Azcona, Juan Carlos Béccar Varela and Valerio R. Pico modified the decision of the lower court. They declared null and void the presidential decree!
The reason these judges gave was reported in the publication La Nación of June 24th, as follows: “Religious liberty is one of the most important human rights . . . in consequence, in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, their cult . . . cannot be validly restricted, unless its exercise affects the morals or public order.” The judges noted that “the statutes of the [Jehovah’s Witnesses] state that its purpose is ‘public Christian worship of the Most High God and Christ Jesus.’”
Thus the noble ideals expressed in the Argentine Constitution were respected and applied! However, the law allows 10 days for registering an appeal. The question was: Would the State appeal?
to the supreme court
Just under the deadline, the government’s appeal motion was presented to the Supreme Court. The case aroused much interest on the part of persons concerned with freedom and human rights, both in Argentina and abroad. Such persons confidently felt that the nation’s highest court would champion constitutional freedom.
On February 8, 1978, the five justices of the Supreme Court issued their decision. They refused to set aside the ban!
The decision was shrouded in legal terminology that, to the layman, frequently bordered on pure contradiction. The justices claimed: ‘Decree 1867 did not show arbitrariness nor apparent illegality.’ Yet, the decree was arbitrary and illegal because it flatly contradicted the Constitution.
The justices said that ‘the Witnesses had other administrative and judicial avenues for the defense of their rights, namely, inscription in the Registry of Religions.’ But on nine previous occasions Jehovah’s Witnesses had petitioned the government to be included in this Registry of Religions and had been turned down!
Additionally, the judges asserted that they did not ‘pass judgment on the legality of the pretentions substantiated by the Witnesses nor on the legality of the measures adopted in the decree banning them; the Court simply declared inadmissible the legal avenue used by the Witnesses’! And yet the courts are the legal avenue, properly used by Jehovah’s Witnesses!
Why did the Supreme Court resort to such argumentation? For 15 months the case had been under close study by the State’s experts in law, including the attorney general, and by the federal judges who heard the case. Yet, NOT ONCE was the legal recourse invoked by the Witnesses called into question or disputed!
Was the High Court simply ‘washing its hands,’ as did Pontius Pilate in the case of Jesus? Was it seeking to avoid the responsibility of defining a constitutional issue?
How different was the attitude expressed by the renowned Argentine educator and statesman Domingo F. Sarmiento a century ago. He had said: “If there is a minority of the population, and I say even one person who honestly and sincerely disagrees with the sentiment of the majority, the law protects him if he does not try to violate the laws.” Sarmiento further declared: “For the protection of his thinking the . . . Constitution has been constructed.”
Thus, the Supreme Court, shirking its duty, had rendered a heavy blow against freedom, and against Jehovah’s Witnesses. What it did was to give its seal of approval to the many acts of intolerance that had already taken place when the ban was first imposed in September of 1976, and that would yet take place. And what were some of those acts?