FEBRUARY 5, 2015
After our meeting together, I am happy and singing to myself. Your visit is comforting, and studying the Bible gives me purpose in life.
I just wanted to thank you for the legal, administrative, and spiritual measures you have taken to put this chaplaincy in place.
This provision is an answer to my prayers.
These comments from prison inmates in France express appreciation for the spiritual assistance provided by a minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
On October 16, 2013, France’s highest Administrative Court issued a decision that ended a period of discrimination against Jehovah’s Witnesses in France. The Court’s ruling allows ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses to enter prisons as certified chaplains to offer spiritual counseling to inmates who request a visit. *
Witness Ministers Denied Chaplain Certificates
For many years, prison authorities allowed Witness ministers to visit prisons to offer spiritual guidance and counseling despite their not having a chaplain certificate that officially recognized them as ministers. This began to change in 1995 after a Parliamentary Commission released a controversial report containing a list of so-called dangerous sects that included Jehovah’s Witnesses. This negative classification did more than attack the Witnesses’ image—it sparked a wave of discrimination against them. One manifestation of this was seen in the prison system.
Although parliamentary reports are not legally binding, some prison administrations used the 1995 report as a basis to restrict Witness ministers’ access to inmates who requested spiritual assistance. A Witness minister could visit inmates under common law as a private citizen but not in his official capacity as a minister. He was no longer allowed to bring a Bible or any religious literature with him. All visits had to be conducted in a public visiting room in an atmosphere that was not conducive to a spiritual discussion. One Witness minister said that the atmosphere in the visiting room “was like that of a train concourse, with a similar noise level.” Some prison facilities required that inmates be strip-searched after a visit because it was not with a government-certified chaplain.
In an effort to obtain the same rights as certified ministers of other religions, ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses began applying for chaplain certificates through the French penitentiary administration in 2003. All applications were categorically denied. The Witnesses appealed these arbitrary and discriminatory refusals to a higher administrative authority but were again denied. The official reason given by France’s Ministry of Justice for refusing to certify Witness ministers as chaplains was that Jehovah’s Witnesses were not on the list of religions that were authorized to enter prisons. The Ministry also expressed concern that granting a chaplain certificate to one of Jehovah’s Witnesses would only encourage other religious minorities to request chaplain certificates. After unsuccessful attempts to resolve the matter through the Ministry of Justice, the Witnesses had no other choice but to pursue this issue in court.
Government Refuses to End Discrimination
In 2006, Jehovah’s Witnesses initiated lawsuits to annul the refusals and to order the Ministry of Justice to grant chaplain certificates to Witness ministers. Every Administrative Court and Court of Appeals in the country that ruled on the matter declared that the government’s refusals were illegal. Moreover, in 2010, the French High Authority for the Fight Against Discrimination and for Equality denounced the government’s position and recommended that the Minister of Justice put an end to the discrimination.
The French government not only ignored this warning and the court decisions but also lodged appeals with the Council of State, France’s highest Administrative Court.
Historic Decision in Favor of Jehovah’s Witnesses
In 2013, the Witness cases eventually came before the Council of State, which joined nine similar cases for consideration. In its October 16, 2013, decision, the Court rejected the appeals submitted by the French government. It stated that in order to respect a prisoner’s rights, the Penitentiary Administration must, “as soon as the request is made, certify a sufficient number of religious ministers as chaplains, subject only to the safety and good order requirements of the facility.” Further, referring to the French Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights, the Council of State declared that “freedom of opinion, conscience and religion of incarcerated individuals is guaranteed and that they may practice the religion of their choice.” As a result of this decision, to date, 105 chaplain certificates have been issued in France, including its overseas territories, making it possible for prison inmates to receive pastoral visits from Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In January 2014, the French Penitentiary Administration appointed one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jean-Marc Fourcault, as the national chaplain of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In this role, Mr. Fourcault has access to all prisons in France. He is also authorized to act as the representative of Jehovah’s Witnesses before the Penitentiary Administration. Mr. Fourcault states: “From now on, just like representatives from other authorized religions, Jehovah’s Witness chaplains will be able to meet with inmates privately and in dignified and appropriate locations, sometimes in their own cell.”
This decision is an important victory for freedom of religion in France. It reaffirms that detained individuals have the right to practice the religion of their choice and to be visited by a minister of their choice. Jehovah’s Witnesses are grateful that French courts ended this discrimination, marking another step forward in the recognition of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a religion in France.
^ par. 6 Some prisoners become Jehovah’s Witnesses after coming in contact with Witnesses while incarcerated. Others may have had contact with the Witnesses or were raised in Witness families prior to engaging in criminal conduct and now seek to return to the congregation. Regardless of the reason for their request to be visited by a minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses while in prison, these individuals are entitled to the same religious freedoms granted to prisoners of other faiths.