Funding Religious Intolerance?

June 15, 2016

This week the Norwegian Parliament will pass a proposition paving the way for withholding state funding to religious groups that promote intolerance. But is this within the right to religious freedom?

KaVass - Creative Commons

KaVass - Creative Commons

In a proposition to the Norwegian Parliament the government is asked to make a report on how the Norwegian state can withhold public funding of religious groups. In Norway all organized religious groups receive funding based on their registered number of members. The proposition is tabled by The Socialist Left Party and has already secured a majority of the votes. The criteria suggested for loosing state funding is when religious organizations:

  • Encourage acts that are against the law
  • Receive funding from states that are in violation of fundamental human rights
  • Other serious issues that can result in loss of state funding

The proposition is up for discussion in the parliament Thursday the 16th of June.

On the surface this might seem quite straightforward. Why shouldn’t the state of Norway be allowed to deny funding to a denomination which receives funding from states that are in violation of fundamental human rights? Well, if it does it might itself be in violation of the fundamental human right to freedom of religion. The reason for this is to be found in Norwegian history. This case raises some questions concerning the complex relationship between the state and religion in Norway.


Audun Lysbakken, the leader of the Socialist Left Party in Norway, says they put forth this proposition in response to the large number of girls with Muslim background going public with stories of strong social control, within the context of conservative religion and honor culture. He is critical of public funds being used to promote intolerance, in a way that represses women and sexual minorities. “First and foremost this is about putting pressure on groups that don’t respect the rights of women and homosexuals”, Lysbakken says. The proposition is thus a part of the fight for equal rights, and also part of a policy for integration of immigrants. Although Lysbakken says that it should be possible to further conservative interpretations of religion, he can see no reason for Norway to fund groups that contribute to limiting the freedom of women.

 This is where it gets complicated. If the aim is to put pressure on religious groups that oppose equal rights, it will be problematic to do so through the Norwegian system of funding religious groups. Because that is not really what the system is all about.

A short history lesson
Public funding of religious organizations in Norway is not primarily motivated by the wish to support different denominations, but is rooted in the history of the state church. Since 1536/7 the Evangelical Lutheran Church has been the official religion of the state of Norway. (No longer a state church from 2012, but there are still strong ties to the state.) To fund the church there has been a church tax, which means that the state have been funding the church directly through taxes. As long as the church was the only legal religious organization in Norway, this was no big problem. But after other denominations were allowed in 1847 a new issue was raised. Is it fair that members of other denominations should fund the Church of Norway? The solution was giving members of other denominations a tax deduction. In 1969 the church tax was made mandatory for everyone again. From now on other denominations, and religious or non-religious organizations based on world-views, can apply for compensation for the tax their members have paid. Based on their registered members, denominations can apply for a ‘refund’ of these taxes equaling the average sum the state spends on each member of the Church of Norway.

 So the funding of religious organizations in Norway is not regular funding. It is a way of a) compensating for taxes spent on the church of Norway, and b) securing equal treatment of religious organizations by avoiding favoring one (The church of Norway) over others, in line with the right of religious freedom stated in the constitution, as well as international treaties on human rights. The Norwegian Constitution §16 states: 

Equal funding is a guarantee for the right to religious freedom in Norway. This means that the threshold for withholding this funding should be very high. Director of International Law and Policy Institute, Njål Høstmælingen, warns that a state cannot demand that a religious group gives up central tenets of its faith. It will thus be problematic to for instance demand support for equal rights based on gender and sexual orientation as a condition for public funding.

Religious freedom is not absolute. As other human rights it needs to be weighed against other rights, and both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 18 (3)) and the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 9 (2)) give states some rights to impose limits on religious freedom to protect the rights and freedoms of others. But withholding state funding is a problematic tool in the fight for equality and tolerance. In its current form the primary function of funding religious groups in Norway is to be able to fund the Church of Norway through taxes. When it comes to cases where religious groups encourage criminal acts, there is room within today’s laws to cut public funding. But going further than that will in my view necessitate a fundamental restructuring of the way religious groups, including the Church of Norway, are being funded. There are obvious problems with the fact that public funds are given to groups that promote views that are in opposition to equality based on gender and sexual orientation. But there might be better ways to fight this than risking a system that discriminates against beliefs that are protected by the right to freedom of religion.