European Court Upholds a Mother’s Rights

By Awake! writer in France

ON December 16, 2003, the European Court of Human Rights, located in Strasbourg, France, found the French courts guilty of religious discrimination against Séraphine Palau-Martínez, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In 1996, Séraphine was granted a divorce from her husband, who had abandoned her two years earlier. She was given custody of their two children. But in 1997, by which time the children had been living with their mother for nearly three and a half years, the father refused to return them at the end of a visitation period. Séraphine relates: “When I went to fetch the children from school to take them home, the principal called the police. I had to see my children in the presence of police officers to ensure that I did not speak to them about my faith. It was as if I were a criminal. I was told that I could take the children only if I signed a declaration certifying that I would not speak to them about God or the Bible or take them to Christian meetings.”

Séraphine turned to the courts. However, in 1998, the Court of Appeal of Nîmes granted custody to the father. It justified its decision with a severe and sweeping criticism of the educational principles that it believed Jehovah’s Witnesses give their children. “It hurt so much,” recalls Séraphine, “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.”

When the Cour de Cassation, the French supreme court of appeal, concurred with the appellate court, Séraphine decided to take the matter before the European Court of Human Rights. In a 6-to-1 decision, it ruled that “there is no doubt in the eyes of the Court that the [French] court of appeal carried out a difference in treatment between the parents based on the applicant’s religion. . . . Such a difference in treatment is discriminatory.” It determined that the French court’s decision was not based on Séraphine’s capacity to look after her children​—something that was never called into question—​nor on hard facts but on “observations of a general nature about Jehovah’s Witnesses.” In view of this religious discrimination and violation of Séraphine’s rights, the Court ordered France to pay damages and costs.

This decision is in harmony with a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in June 1993 in a similar case in which the Court determined that Austria had discriminated against Ingrid Hoffmann, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the basis of her religion. * “In harmony with the Hoffmann ruling,” notes the French legal review La Semaine juridique, “this ruling confirms that a decision regarding parental authority can in no way be dictated primarily by considerations of religion.” Séraphine’s lawyer stated: “This decision is very important, inasmuch as case law established by the Court is constant in asserting the right of Jehovah’s Witness parents to an impartial judgment.”

Asked how she felt about the decision, Séraphine, who now lives in Spain, declared: “I am very happy and relieved. Having my children taken away from me because of my religion and not seeing them for five years was a terrible ordeal, but Jehovah always sustained me. I hope that this ruling will help others in my situation.”

[Footnote]

^ par. 7 See Awake! October 8, 1993, page 15, “Jehovah’s Witnesses Vindicated in Child-Custody Battle.”

[Picture on page 12]

Séraphine