OCTOBER 10, 2017
After more than 26 years of legal proceedings, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany obtained the same legal status as that granted to major religions in the country. On January 27, 2017, North Rhine-Westphalia was the last state of the 16 German states to grant public law status to Jehovah’s Witnesses. The decision is significant for the Witnesses because even though they have been present in Germany for well over 100 years, their national headquarters and the thousands of congregations in the country were considered independent religious associations. Now that the Witnesses have finally been granted public law status in all German states, they are viewed as a single religious entity and enjoy the benefits that this status provides.
The Long Struggle to Obtain Public Law Status
In 1921, Jehovah’s Witnesses were first registered in Germany under private law. After the reunification of Germany in 1990, the Witnesses applied for public law status because of the benefits available to religious organizations that have it.
In order for a religious association to be registered throughout the country as a public law corporation, the law requires that it first obtain public law status in the German state where it is based. It may then apply for this status in the 15 other German states. In 1990, the religious association Jehovas Zeugen in Deutschland (Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany) first applied to the state of Berlin, where it maintains its legal address. Although most religious organizations seeking public law status obtain it within a short period of time, perhaps within a year or two, the Berlin government refused to grant public law status to Jehovah’s Witnesses for many years. One reason the government cited was that the Witnesses refrain from voting in national elections. However, this argument is not valid, since the law does not require German citizens to vote; to do so is entirely voluntary.
This issue eventually came before the courts. On March 24, 2005, the Higher Administrative Court in Berlin ruled that Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany must be acknowledged as a “corporation of public law.” Over a year later, the state of Berlin relented and granted public law status to Jehovah’s Witnesses, ending a 16-year legal struggle with the Berlin government.
Next, the Witnesses applied for public law status in the remaining 15 German states. In 2009, 11 states granted public law status; another 3 states followed in subsequent years; and the last state, North Rhine-Westphalia, granted public law status to Jehovah’s Witnesses on January 27, 2017. The persistent efforts of Jehovah’s Witnesses to obtain the same legal status as that granted to major religions in Germany finally ended after 26 years of legal proceedings.
The Benefits of Having Public Law Status
The national headquarters and the more than 2,000 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany now function under a single corporate structure. In the past, because each association representing at least one congregation was viewed as an independent religious association, it was subject to state laws requiring the submission of annual reports and tax returns. Adjustments in an association’s structure resulting from an appointment of new elders, purchase of property, or the renaming or merging of congregations had to be reported to the government. In the past these reporting requirements required much effort and time on the part of congregation elders, but now they can focus more fully on the pastoral care of congregants. The lack of public law status also required congregations to pay fees for the processing of reports. A longtime elder in one congregation commented: “Now we have greater freedom to use donated funds to support the congregation’s public ministry.”
Without the superior legal status of public law, Jehovah’s Witnesses were not viewed as a mainstream religion, even though some 274,000 Witnesses and their associates were attending their meetings in Germany. Armin Pikl, an attorney for the national headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany, observed: “During the more than 26 years of legal efforts to obtain the status as a corporation of public law, the media published hundreds of untrue and defamatory statements about our religion, sometimes almost weekly. Now the flood of untrue and defamatory statements has subsided.” Werner Rudtke, a longtime Witness, stated: “Since a religious association that wants to become a public law corporation must be law-abiding in every way, many false allegations against the Witnesses can be refuted.” Another Witness, named Petra, mentioned the past challenges facing schoolchildren. She said: “This kind of recognition is very helpful for children in school. Until now it has been the tendency of teachers to discriminate against Witness students as a result of the false allegation that they belonged to a ‘sect’ rather than to a religion.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany are grateful that their sincere religious activity has been recognized by the government as qualifying for public law status. They hope that such recognition will alleviate some of their past challenges and will benefit them as individuals and as a religious community.