In March, the criminal court of Ghent, Belgium fined the congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) for “inciting discrimination and hatred or violence against former members.” The case centered on the JW practice of “disfellowshipping.” While the court’s sensitivity to the individual impact of shunning is laudable, its decision regrettably assaults the freedoms of religion and association.
First, some background on JW beliefs and disfellowshipping. JW was founded in the United States over a century ago and is headquartered in New York state. This Christian movement proclaims that the end times began in 1914. Given the impending end of the world, JW teaches followers to hold themselves apart from churches and politics, instead ordering their lives pursuant to JW biblical interpretations. JW disciplines its eight million members accordingly. The congregation shuns, or disfellowships, those deemed insufficiently obedient. Once this happens, “no one is allowed to talk to you, not even your own family. They declare that this person must be avoided because they have a mental illness that is contagious.” JWs “physically turn away” from the shunned.
While the court’s sensitivity to the individual impact of shunning is laudable, its decision regrettably assaults the freedoms of religion and association.
This practice seriously impacts those subjected to it. One advocate for disfellowshipped former JWs told the BBC that she never met a shunned believer “who has not experienced depression, alcoholism, suicidal feelings or self-harm.” One such man, a Belgian named Patrick Haeck, responded to his pain by turning to a secular criminal court. Mr. Haeck had been a JW for 35 years and served as an elder. He was disfellowshipped after exposing sexual abuse. Following his judicial complaint, the court conducted a five-year investigation. The inquiry gathered other former JWs and brought criminal charges against the entire JW congregation for inciting discrimination, hatred, and violence.