Jehovah’s Witnesses Vindicated in Child-Custody Battle
INGRID HOFFMANN has been battling to keep custody of her two children since the middle of the last decade. An Austrian woman, she was born and raised a Roman Catholic. She married a fellow Catholic, and gave birth to a son in 1980 and a daughter in 1982. But in 1983 the couple divorced; both parents sought custody of the children. The father charged that the mother’s religion—she had become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses—would harm the children, deprive them of a normal, healthy upbringing. He cited such issues as the Witnesses’ refusal to celebrate certain holidays common in his land and their abstention from blood transfusions.—Acts 15:28, 29.
These specious arguments failed to convince. Both the trial court and the appeals court rejected the father’s claims and awarded custody to the mother. However, in September 1986, the Supreme Court of Austria reversed the lower court’s rulings. It held that these decisions had violated the Austrian Religious Education Act, a law that requires Catholic-born children to be educated as Catholics. The court also ruled that it would not be in the best interests of the children to allow them to be raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses!
What recourse did Ingrid Hoffmann have against such blatant religious prejudice? In February 1987 her case was presented to the European Commission of Human Rights. On April 13, 1992, this commission, which is composed of jurists representing various member nations of the Council of Europe, referred the case for a full hearing before the European Court of Human Rights.
The court ruled on June 23, 1993. It stated: “The European Court therefore accepts that there has been a difference in treatment and that that difference was on the ground of religion; this conclusion is supported by the tone and phrasing of the [Austrian] Supreme Court’s considerations regarding the practical consequences of the applicant’s religion. Such a difference in treatment is discriminatory.” [Italics ours.] It further noted that the Supreme Court “weighed the facts differently from the courts below, whose reasoning was moreover supported by psychological expert opinion. Notwithstanding any possible arguments to the contrary, a distinction based essentially on a difference in religion alone is not acceptable.”
By a vote of five to four, the judges ruled in favor of Ingrid Hoffmann and against Austria, stating, in effect, that Austria had discriminated against her on the basis of her religion and had violated her right to raise her family. Furthermore, by a vote of eight to one, the judges awarded her monetary damages.
This remarkable victory for religious freedom came just a month after another one in the very same court—the case of Kokkinakis v. Greece, which established that Greece had violated a man’s right to teach God’s Word from house to house. Lovers of freedom the world over rejoice when such attempts to suppress religious liberty are thwarted and personal rights to worship God and raise a family according to Bible principles are protected.