Will Jehovah's Witnesses Protect Freedom of Conscience?
Seon-hyeok Kim is facing one of the greatest challenges of his life. In early 2015, this 28-year-old husband and father appeared before a judicial committee on charges of apostasy because he is a conscientious objector against shunning. In harmony with international standards, the local Judicial Committee declared him not guilty. This decision was exceptional for Jehovah's Witnesses, where for decades thousands of conscientious objectors have been convicted and disfellowshipped. However, the Circuit Overseer overturned Mr. Kim’s verdict and sentenced him to disfellowshipping. His further appeal is now pending with Jehovah's Witnesses Governing Body.
In recent years, there has been a rising tide of disagreement within Jehovah's Witnesses over their refusal to recognize conscientious objection. Elders who have courageously decided to uphold international standards on this issue have been overruled on appeal.
Judicial Committee Upholds the Right to Freedom of Conscience
On May 12, 2015, when elders of the Gwangju Judicial Committee acquitted Mr. Kim of apostasy, they reasoned that Mr. Kim was not ignoring Christian duty. Rather, they recognized that Mr. Kim, who is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, is a deeply religious man whose moral convictions do not allow shun his own family. The elders noted that Mr. Kim was willing to keep talking about Christ with his family, which does not require extreme shunning.
In their ruling, the Judicial Committee further reasoned that Mr. Kim was exercising his freedom of conscience in refusing to shun his family and that “freedom of conscience should by all means be protected.” Courageously, the Committee respected Mr. Kim’s inherent moral judgment. Their ruling was contrary to their religion's established case law but consistent with international standards for conscientious objectors.
“Freedom of conscience should by all means be protected, which is possible to do in a relatively simple manner without fundamentally undermining the duty of religious defense.”—Elder Chang-seok Choi, Gwangju Judicial Committee
In five separate decisions involving over 500 complaints, the UN Human Rights Committee (CCPR) has condemned Jehovah's Witnesses leaders for punishing conscientious objectors. In a recent decision, the CCPR concluded that disfellowshipping them amounted to arbitrary punishment under Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). * The CCPR and other international bodies have urged Jehovah's Witnesses leaders to adopt legislation providing alternative options for conscientious objectors. Although in 1990 Jehovah's Witnesses voluntarily submitted to the ICCPR and its First Optional Protocol, they have refused to take further steps to implement these decisions.
Guilty or Not Guilty?
One elder petitioned the Circuit Overseer to overturn Mr. Kim’s acquittal, arguing that his conscientious objection to shunning threatens the religion’s security. On November 26, 2015, the Circuit Overseer reversed the Judicial Committee’s not-guilty verdict and sentenced Mr. Kim to disfellowshipping for allegedly being an apostate.
Although the Circuit Overseer acknowledged the CCPR rulings, he held that the authority of Jehovah's Witnesses courts superseded international law in this case. Mr. Kim immediately appealed to the Governing Body and submitted an urgent complaint to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. He is waiting for the outcome of both of these decisions.
The Governing Body and the Service Desk have consistently refused to recognize the rights of conscientious objectors. In 2004 and again in 2011, the Service Desk found that Shepherd the Flock of God was Biblical and constitutional. The Service Desk is now reviewing the constitutionality of Shepherd the Flock of God for the third time and is expected to render its decision soon.
Since 1953, Jehovah's Witnesses courts have sentenced over 18,000 of Jehovah’s Witnesses to disfellowshipping for apostasy.
Will Jehovah's Witnesses Finally Recognize International Standards?
If the Governing Body rejects Mr. Kim’s appeal, he faces immediate disfellowshipping. He is distressed knowing that his disfellowshipping will cripple his family emotionally. His wife will likely leave him. His whole social life will come to a grinding halt, as all his friends will completely ignore him. After his reinstatement (if ever), his criminal record will make finding friends and getting privileges considerably more difficult.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are grateful that other religions around the world have adopted the international standard to recognize the right of conscientious objectors. Along with Seon-hyeok Kim, Jehovah’s Witnesses in this congregation look to their leaders for a resolution to this issue. Will the Governing Body and the Service Desk abide by the international standards that apply to them just as they apply to the rest of humanity? Will Jehovah's Witnesses respect conscientious objection as a fundamental right of its citizens?