Fighting for Freedom to Worship
1, 2. (a) What is the proof of your citizenship in God’s Kingdom? (b) Why have Jehovah’s Witnesses sometimes had to fight for religious freedom?
ARE you a citizen of God’s Kingdom? As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, you certainly are! And what is the proof of your citizenship? Not a passport, nor some other government document. Rather, the proof lies in the way that you worship Jehovah God. True worship involves more than what you believe. It involves what you do—your obedience to the laws of God’s Kingdom. For all of us, our worship touches every aspect of life, including the way we raise our families and even the way we respond to certain health issues.
2 However, the world we live in does not always respect our most cherished citizenship or its requirements. Some governments have tried to restrict our worship or even stamp it out altogether. At times, Christ’s subjects have had to fight for the freedom to live by the laws of the Messianic King. Is that surprising? No. Jehovah’s people in Bible times often had to fight for the freedom to worship Jehovah.
3. What fight did God’s people face in Queen Esther’s day?
3 In the days of Queen Esther, for example, God’s people had to fight for their very existence. Why? The wicked Prime Minister Haman suggested to Persian King Ahasuerus that all the Jews living in the king’s realm be killed because their “laws are different from those of all other peoples.” (Esther 3:8, 9, 13) Did Jehovah abandon his servants? No, he blessed the efforts of Esther and Mordecai as they appealed to the Persian king to protect God’s people.—Esther 9:20-22.
4. What will we discuss in this chapter?
4 What about modern times? As we saw in the preceding chapter, secular powers have, at times, opposed Jehovah’s Witnesses. In this chapter, we will discuss some ways in which such governments have tried to restrict our way of worship. We will focus on three general areas: (1) our right to exist as an organization and to worship as we choose, (2) the freedom to choose medical treatment in harmony with Bible principles, and (3) the right of parents to raise children according to Jehovah’s standards. In each area, we will see how loyal citizens of the Messianic Kingdom have struggled valiantly to guard their precious citizenship and how their efforts have been blessed.
Struggling for Legal Recognition and Basic Freedoms
5. Legal recognition offers what benefits to true Christians?
5 Do we need legal recognition from human governments in order to worship Jehovah? No, but legal recognition makes it easier for us to carry on our worship—for example, to meet freely in our own Kingdom Halls and Assembly Halls, to print and import Bible literature, and to share the good news with our neighbors openly, without hindrance. In many countries, Jehovah’s Witnesses are legally registered and enjoy the same freedoms to worship as do the adherents of other legally recognized religions. What, though, has happened when governments have denied legal recognition or have tried to restrict our basic freedoms?
6. Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia faced what challenge in the early 1940’s?
6 Australia. In the early 1940’s, the governor-general of Australia deemed our beliefs “prejudicial” to the war effort. A ban was imposed. Witnesses were unable to meet or preach openly, Bethel operations were closed down, and Kingdom Halls were seized. Merely possessing our Bible literature was prohibited. After operating in secret for several years, the Australian Witnesses found relief at last. On June 14, 1943, the High Court of Australia reversed the ban.
7, 8. Describe the fight for freedom of worship that our brothers in Russia have waged over the years.
7 Russia. Jehovah’s Witnesses spent decades under Communist ban but were finally registered in 1991. After the breakup of the former Soviet Union, we were granted legal recognition in the Russian Federation in 1992. Before long, however, some opposers—particularly those associated with the Russian Orthodox Church—were unnerved by the rapid growth in our numbers. Opposers filed a series of five criminal complaints against Jehovah’s Witnesses between 1995 and 1998. Each time, the prosecutor found no evidence of wrongdoing. The determined opposers then filed a civil complaint in 1998. The Witnesses prevailed at first, but the opposers rejected the verdict and the Witnesses lost on the appeal in May 2001. A retrial began in October of that year, leading to a decision in 2004 to liquidate the registered legal entity that the Witnesses use in Moscow and ban its activities.
8 A wave of persecution followed. (Read 2 Timothy 3:12.) Witnesses faced harassment and assault. Religious literature was confiscated; renting or building houses of worship was severely restricted. Imagine how our brothers and sisters felt as they faced those hardships! The Witnesses had applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2001, and they submitted additional information to the Court in 2004. In 2010, the ECHR reached its decision. The Court saw clearly that religious intolerance was behind Russia’s ban on the Witnesses and ruled that there was no reason to uphold the decisions of the lower courts, since there had been no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of any Witnesses. The Court further noted that the ban was designed to strip the Witnesses of their legal rights. The Court’s decision upheld the Witnesses’ right of freedom of religion. Although various Russian authorities have failed to comply with the ECHR ruling, God’s people in that land have drawn great courage from such victories.
9-11. In Greece, how have Jehovah’s people struggled for the freedom to worship together, and what have been the results?
9 Greece. In 1983, Titos Manoussakis rented a room in Heraklion, Crete, so that a small group of Jehovah’s Witnesses could meet there for worship. (Heb. 10:24, 25) Soon, though, an Orthodox priest filed a complaint with government authorities, protesting the Witnesses’ use of the room for worship. Why? Simply because the Witnesses’ beliefs differ from those of the Orthodox Church! Authorities initiated criminal proceedings against Titos Manoussakis and three other local Witnesses. They were fined and sentenced to two months’ imprisonment. As loyal citizens of God’s Kingdom, the Witnesses considered the court’s judgment to be a violation of their freedom to worship, so they pursued their case through the domestic courts and eventually applied to the ECHR.
10 Finally, in 1996, the ECHR delivered a stunning blow to opposers of pure worship. The Court noted that “Jehovah’s Witnesses come within the definition of ‘known religion’ as provided for under Greek law” and that the lower courts’ decisions had a “direct effect on applicants’ freedom of religion.” The Court further found that it was not up to the government of Greece to “determine whether religious beliefs or the means used to express such beliefs are legitimate.” The sentences against the Witnesses were overturned, and their freedom of worship was upheld!
11 Did that victory settle matters in Greece? Sadly, no. In 2012, a similar case was finally settled in Kassandreia, Greece, after a nearly 12-year-long legal battle. In this case the opposition was mounted by an Orthodox bishop. The Council of State, the highest administrative court of Greece, settled the matter in favor of God’s people. The decision cited Greece’s own constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion and refuted the oft repeated charge that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not a known religion. The Court stated: “The doctrines of ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ are not hidden and, consequently, they profess a known religion.” Members of the small congregation in Kassandreia rejoice that they are now able to hold meetings for worship in their own Kingdom Hall.
12, 13. In France, how have opposers tried to frame “trouble in the name of the law,” and with what result?
12 France. Some opposers of God’s people have used the tactic of “framing trouble in the name of the law.” (Read Psalm 94:20.) For example, in the mid-1990’s, tax authorities in France began an audit of the finances of the Association Les Témoins de Jéhovah (ATJ), one of the legal entities under which Jehovah’s Witnesses operate in France. The minister of the budget revealed the true objective of the audit: “The audit could lead to judicial liquidation or criminal proceedings . . . , which would likely destabilize the association’s operations or force it to cease its activities in our territory.” Although the audit turned up no irregularities, the tax authorities levied a crippling tax against ATJ. If successful, the tactic would have left our brothers with little choice but to close the branch office and sell the buildings in order to pay the huge tax. It was a heavy blow, but God’s people did not give up. The Witnesses vigorously protested this unjust treatment, ultimately submitting the case to the ECHR in 2005.
13 The Court handed down its judgment on June 30, 2011. It reasoned that the right to freedom of religion should prevent the State, except in extreme cases, from assessing the legitimacy of religious beliefs or the way they are expressed. Further, the Court stated: “The taxation . . . had the effect of cutting off the association’s vital resources, thereafter preventing it from ensuring its adherents the free exercise of their worship in its practical aspects.” The Court unanimously decided in favor of Jehovah’s Witnesses! To the delight of Jehovah’s people, the French government finally returned the tax levied against ATJ with interest and, in compliance with the Court’s order, removed the liens on the branch property.
You can pray regularly for your spiritual brothers and sisters who are currently suffering on account of legal injustices
14. How can you play a part in the fight for freedom of worship?
14 Like Esther and Mordecai of old, Jehovah’s people today fight for the freedom to worship Jehovah in the way that he has commanded. (Esther 4:13-16) Can you have a part? Yes. You can pray regularly for your spiritual brothers and sisters who are currently suffering on account of legal injustices. Such prayers can be a powerful aid to our brothers and sisters under hardship and persecution. (Read James 5:16.) Does Jehovah act on such prayers? Our victories in court suggest that he certainly does!—Heb. 13:18, 19.
Freedom to Choose Medical Treatment in Harmony With Our Beliefs
15. What factors do God’s people take into account regarding the use of blood?
15 As we noted in Chapter 11, citizens of God’s Kingdom have received clear Scriptural guidance to avoid the misuse of blood, which has become so common today. (Gen. 9:5, 6; Lev. 17:11; read Acts 15:28, 29.) Although we do not accept blood transfusions, we want the best medical care possible for ourselves and our loved ones as long as such treatment does not conflict with God’s laws. The highest courts of many nations have recognized that people have the right to choose or to refuse medical treatment as their conscience and religious beliefs require. In some lands, however, God’s people have faced daunting challenges in this regard. Consider some examples.
16, 17. What medical treatment did a sister in Japan receive that proved shocking to her, and how were her prayers answered?
16 Japan. Misae Takeda, a 63-year-old housewife in Japan, needed major surgery. As a loyal citizen of God’s Kingdom, she made clear to her doctor that she wanted to be treated without blood. Yet, months later, she was shocked to learn that she had been given a blood transfusion during her surgery. Feeling violated and deceived, Sister Takeda filed a lawsuit against the doctors and the hospital in June 1993. This modest, soft-spoken woman had unshakable faith. She gave bold testimony before a full courtroom, remaining on the witness stand for over an hour despite her failing strength. She appeared in court for the last time just a month before she died. Do we not admire her courage and faith? Sister Takeda said that she constantly petitioned Jehovah for his blessing on her fight. She was confident that her prayers would be answered. Were they?
17 Three years after Sister Takeda died, the Supreme Court of Japan ruled in her favor—agreeing that it was wrong to give her a blood transfusion against her express wishes. The February 29, 2000, decision stated that “the right to decide” in such cases “must be respected as personal rights.” Thanks to Sister Takeda’s determination to fight for her freedom to choose medical treatment in harmony with her Bible-trained conscience, Witnesses in Japan can now receive medical treatment without the fear of a forced blood transfusion.
18-20. (a) How did a court of appeals in Argentina uphold a person’s right to refuse blood transfusions through use of a medical directive? (b) Regarding the misuse of blood, how might we show submission to Christ’s leadership?
18 Argentina. How can citizens of the Kingdom prepare in case a medical decision needs to be made while they are unconscious? We can carry on our person a legal document that will speak for us, as Pablo Albarracini did. In May 2012, he was the victim of an attempted robbery and was shot multiple times. He was admitted to the hospital unconscious and was thus unable to explain his stand regarding blood transfusions. However, he had with him a duly executed medical directive he had signed more than four years earlier. Although his condition was serious and some doctors felt that to save his life, blood transfusion was necessary, the medical staff was prepared to honor his wishes. However, Pablo’s father, who was not one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, obtained a court order to overturn his son’s wishes.
19 The attorney representing Pablo’s wife immediately filed an appeal. Within hours, the court of appeals overturned the lower court’s order and ruled that the patient’s wishes, as expressed in the medical directive, should be respected. Pablo’s father appealed to Argentina’s Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court could find “no reasons to doubt that [Pablo’s medical directive expressing his refusal of a blood transfusion] was formulated with discernment, intention and freedom.” The Court stated: “Every capable and adult person has the ability to grant advance directives on [his] health, and may accept or reject certain medical treatments . . . These directives must be accepted by the doctor in charge.”
20 Brother Albarracini has since recovered fully. He and his wife are grateful that he had completed a medical directive. By taking that simple—yet important—step, he showed his submission to Christ’s rulership through God’s Kingdom. Have you and your family taken similar measures?
21-24. (a) How did the Supreme Court of Canada come to make a remarkable decision regarding minors and the use of blood? (b) How might this case encourage young servants of Jehovah?
21 Canada. Generally, courts recognize the rights of parents to determine the best medical care for their children. At times, courts have even ruled that a mature minor should be accorded respect when it comes to making medical decisions. That was true of April Cadoreth. At the age of 14, April was admitted to a hospital with severe internal bleeding. A few months earlier, she had completed an Advance Medical Directive card with written instructions that blood transfusions should not be administered to her even in the event of an emergency. The attending physician chose to ignore April’s clearly expressed wishes and sought a court order to give her blood. She was forcibly transfused with three units of packed red blood cells. April later likened the experience to rape.
22 April and her parents turned to the courts for justice. After two years, the case came before the Supreme Court of Canada. Though April technically lost her constitutional challenge, the Court awarded her legal costs and ruled in favor of her and other mature minors who seek to exercise their right to decide for themselves their own medical treatment. The Court stated: “In the context of medical treatment, young people under 16 should be permitted to attempt to demonstrate that their views about a particular medical treatment decision reflect a sufficient degree of independence of thought and maturity.”
23 This case is significant in that the Supreme Court addressed the constitutional rights of mature minors. Before this ruling, a Canadian court could authorize medical treatment on a child under 16 as long as the court felt that the treatment was in the best interests of the child. But after this ruling, a court cannot authorize any treatment against the will of young people under the age of 16 without first offering them the chance to prove that they are mature enough to make their own decisions.
“To know that I’ve had a small part in trying to glorify God’s name and prove Satan a liar has truly made me happy”
24 Was the three-year battle worth the effort? According to April, “Yes!” Now a regular pioneer and in good health, she says: “To know that I’ve had a small part in trying to glorify God’s name and prove Satan a liar has truly made me happy.” April’s experience shows that our young ones can take a courageous stand, proving themselves genuine citizens of God’s Kingdom.—Matt. 21:16.
Freedom to Raise Children According to Jehovah’s Standards
25, 26. What situation sometimes arises in the wake of a divorce?
25 Jehovah entrusts parents with the responsibility to raise their children according to his standards. (Deut. 6:6-8; Eph. 6:4) That assignment is challenging, but it may become far more so in the event of a divorce. Views on parenting may differ sharply. For example, a Witness parent feels strongly that a child should be raised according to Christian standards, whereas a non-Witness parent may disagree. Of course, the Witness parent should respectfully recognize that while divorce may sever the marital relationship, the parental relationship remains intact.
26 The non-Witness parent may petition a court for custody of the child or children so that he or she can control their religious upbringing. Some allege that being raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses is harmful. They may contend that the children will be deprived of birthday celebrations, holiday festivities and, in the event of a medical emergency, a “lifesaving” blood transfusion. Thankfully, most courts consider what is in the best interests of the child instead of judging whether they consider the religion of one parent to be harmful. Let us look at some examples.
27, 28. How did the Supreme Court of Ohio respond to the charge that being raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses is harmful to a child?
27 United States. In 1992, the Supreme Court of Ohio considered a case in which the non-Witness father claimed that it would be harmful to his young son if he was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The lower court had agreed, granting custody to the father. The mother, Jennifer Pater, was granted visitation rights, but she was directed not to “teach or expose the child to the Jehovah[’]s Witnesses’ beliefs in any form.” This order from the lower court was so broad that it could be interpreted to mean that Sister Pater could not even talk with her son, Bobby, about the Bible or its moral standards! Can you imagine her feelings? Jennifer was devastated, but she says that she learned to be patient and to wait on Jehovah to act. She recalls, “Jehovah was always right there.” Her attorney, aided by Jehovah’s organization, appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio.
28 The court disagreed with the decision of the lower court, stating that “parents have a fundamental right to educate their children, including the right to communicate their moral and religious values.” The court stated that unless it could be shown that the religious values endorsed by Jehovah’s Witnesses would harm the physical and mental well-being of the child, the court had no right to restrict a parent’s custody rights on the basis of religion. The court found no proof that the Witnesses’ religious beliefs would adversely affect the mental or physical health of the child.
29-31. Why did a sister in Denmark lose custody of her daughter, and what did Denmark’s Supreme Court decide in the matter?
29 Denmark. Anita Hansen found herself facing a similar challenge when her former husband petitioned a court to gain custody of seven-year-old Amanda. Although the district court granted custody to Sister Hansen in 2000, Amanda’s father appealed to the high court, which overturned the district court’s ruling and granted him custody. The high court reasoned that because the parents had conflicting views of life based on their religious beliefs, the father would be in a better position to address those conflicts. Essentially, then, Sister Hansen lost custody of Amanda because of being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses!
30 Throughout this difficult ordeal, Sister Hansen was at times so distraught that she did not know what to pray for. “But,” she relates, “the thoughts in Romans 8:26 and 27 were of great comfort. I always felt that Jehovah understood what I meant. He had his eye on me and was always there for me.”—Read Psalm 32:8; Isaiah 41:10.
31 Sister Hansen appealed to the Supreme Court of Denmark. In its ruling, the Court stated: “The question about custody shall be decided on a concrete assessment of what will be in the best interests of the child.” Further, the Court held that a decision about custody should rest on the way each parent handles conflicts, not on the basis of the “doctrines and positions” of Jehovah’s Witnesses. To Sister Hansen’s great relief, the Court recognized her fitness as a parent and returned the custody of Amanda to her.
32. How has the European Court of Human Rights protected Witness parents against discrimination?
32 Various countries in Europe. In some cases, legal controversies regarding custody of children have gone beyond the highest national courts. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has considered this issue as well. In two cases, the ECHR acknowledged that lower, national courts had treated Witness and non-Witness parents differently simply on the basis of religion. Calling such treatment discriminatory, the ECHR has ruled that “a distinction based essentially on a difference in religion alone is not acceptable.” One Witness mother who benefited from such a decision of the ECHR expressed relief and said, “It hurt so much to be accused of harming my children, when all I was trying to do was give them what I thought was best for them—a Christian upbringing.”
33. How might Witness parents apply the principle of Philippians 4:5?
33 Of course, Witness parents facing legal challenges to their right to instill Bible standards in their children’s hearts strive to show a spirit of reasonableness. (Read Philippians 4:5.) Just as they appreciate having the right to train their children in God’s way, so they acknowledge that the non-Witness parent, if he or she chooses, shares the parental responsibilities. How seriously does a Witness parent take the responsibility to train a child?
34. How can Christian parents today benefit from the example of the Jews in Nehemiah’s day?
34 An example from Nehemiah’s day is instructive. The Jews worked hard to repair and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. They knew that doing so would protect them and their families from the enemy nations surrounding them. For that reason, Nehemiah urged them: “Fight for your brothers, your sons and daughters, your wives and homes.” (Neh. 4:14) For those Jews, the fight was worth every effort. Likewise today, parents who are Jehovah’s Witnesses work hard to raise their children in the way of the truth. They know that their children are bombarded by unwholesome influences at school and in the neighborhood. Such influences may even creep into the home environment through the media. Parents, never forget that it is worth every effort to fight for your sons and daughters so as to provide a secure environment in which they will flourish spiritually.
Be Confident in Jehovah’s Support of True Worship
35, 36. What benefits have come to Jehovah’s Witnesses as a result of our fighting for our legal rights, and what is your determination?
35 Jehovah has surely blessed the efforts of his modern-day organization in the fight for the right to worship freely. In pressing such legal issues, God’s people have often been able to give a powerful witness in court and to the public at large. (Rom. 1:8) A side benefit of their many legal victories is that they have reinforced the civil rights of many non-Witnesses. However, as God’s people, we are not social reformers; nor are we interested in self-vindication. Above all, Jehovah’s Witnesses have pursued their legal rights in the courts in an effort to establish and advance pure worship.—Read Philippians 1:7.
36 May we never take for granted the lessons of faith we can learn from those who have fought for the freedom to worship Jehovah! Let us remain faithful as well, confident that Jehovah is supporting our work and continues to give us the strength to do his will.—Isa. 54:17.