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  • November 2019: Burning of the Quran in Kristiansand

The anti-Islamic organisation SIAN (Stop the Islamisation of Norway) organised a demonstration in Kristiansand where their stated intent was to set fire to a Quran. Before the demonstration, local police authorities warned that they would intervene if the planned book burning took place. During the demonstration, a SIAN activist set fire to a Quran, counter-demonstrations attacked, and the police intervened with fire extinguishers, sparking a media debate on the boundaries between freedom of religion and freedom of expression.

  • November 2018: Increased promotion of freedom of religion or belief internationally

On November 12th, the Norwegian minister of foreign affairs Ine Eriksen Søreide hosted a conference on the promotion of freedom of religion or belief as a priority in Norwegian human rights work at the international level. During the conference, the minister announced a significant financial contribution to this work, promising a yearly expenditure of NOK 80 mill. (approx. EUR 8 mill.). The funds will support the political work of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for the promotion of the Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB) and work on the ground in a number of countries worldwide by NGOs like the Stefanus Alliance International, Open Doors and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

  • November 2018: Religious discrimination and handshake cases

In November, the recently reformed Board on Discrimination issued its decisions in two complaints of discrimination lodged by a claimant who claimed to have suffered religious discrimination under the new Equality and Anti-Discrimination Law, which entered into force in 2018. According to the complaints, the claimant had been discriminated against by employees of NAV (the Norwegian Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration) and Oslo Municipality when he lost his work placement contract at a school in Oslo because he refused to shake hands with women for religious reasons.

In the case against Oslo Municipality, the Discrimination Board determined in a split decision (3-2) that the termination of his work placement contract did not constitute discrimination because refusing to shake hands with women was not “central” to his religious beliefs, and because his right to manifest his religion or belief was legitimately limited by the rights of others to equality and non-discrimination.

In the case against NAV, the Discrimination Board determined in a joint, split decision (4-1 and 3-2) that both the verbal treatment of the claimant by NAV employees and the decision by NAV to cut his benefits on the basis of his refusal to shake hands with women constituted unlawful discrimination on the basis of his religion.

  • October 2018: Conscientious objection of medical practitioners

On October 11th, the Supreme Court decided a case on the termination of a general medical practitioner agreement between Sauherad municipality in the South-West of Norway and a doctor who refused to insert contraceptive intrauterine devices (IUDs) for conscientious reasons.

The highly anticipated decision found in favor of the doctor, not because the contract termination violated her right to conscientious objection, but because the municipality had known about her observation while entering into the agreement. Notably, the decision, which was written by former European Court of Human Rights judge Erik Møse, featured an extensive obiter dictum, in which the right of women to access health services was found to be a legitimate limitation of the right of freedom of religion or belief under article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

  • June 2017: Restrictions on the full face veil

For several years, the question of prohibiting the niqab, the Muslim full face veil, has been percolating in the Norwegian public debate. Following the S.A.S. v. France decision of the European Court of Human Rights (2014) (see Europe > 2014 Current debates), where the French ban on wearing the niqab in public was upheld, the debate briefly reawakened, but failed to gain traction. After scattered incidents where students at universities and colleges have been dismissed for their use of the garment, the debate has become more entrenched, leading to discussions of the ban in parliament in 2015 and to an increasing debate in the fall of 2016, as political parties position themselves before the upcoming parliamentary election in 2017. As of September 2016, statements by leaders of the major political parties on the need to restrict the use of the niqab in educational institutions seem to indicate a parliamentary majority in favor of a limited ban.

In June of 2017, the Government presented a draft bill which would prohibit the full face veil for employees, pupils and students in all educational institutions, public or private, from kindergarten and up to universities. While there have been some discussions on the issue, particularly regarding higher education and in terms of sanctions, the bill is likely to be adopted with a clear majority.

  • January 2017: Circumcision of baby boys

During the buildup to the general election in September, several political parties have discussed the question of a ban on the circumcision of baby boys, a procedure that was subject to heated debate a few years back, leading to the adoption of the Act on Ritual Circumcision of Baby Boys in 2014, in order to bring the procedure into the conventional health system (see more under Children and Parents). While the projected number of 2000 circumcisions per year based on the proportion of Muslims and Jews in the population has proven greatly exaggerated, the law has generated a considerable number of conscientious objections from doctors who refuse to perform the procedure. Although only the right-wing Progress Party, currently part of the ruling coalition, has officially called for a ban on the procedure, several other parties have discussed similar regulations.

  • March 2017: Restrictions on religious symbols in the workplace

In March, following a long and protracted conflict between the municipal authorities in Stavanger and the board at Blidensol, a privately-run healthcare facility, on the legality of a dress code banning the Islamic veil among staff, the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Tribunal found in favor of the municipality, pronouncing the incompatibility between the dress code and the Anti-Discrimination laws (see Equality and Non-Discrimination).
While this local conflict is still unresolved, the initiative to prohibit the veil as part of a work uniform, together with the recent decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Case C-157/15 (Samira Achbita v. G4S Secure Solutuions NV), which found that the prohibition of the Islamic veil as part of the uniform of a security company did not constitute direct discrimination, have led to renewed interest in the issue in Norwegian public debate. So far, the most tangible result has been the proposal to ban all “conspicuous religious symbols” among staff in Oslo municipality, a case that is still pending before the City Council.

  • February 2017: Conscientious objection beyond military service

Since 2013, the limits of conscientious objections, in particular for health workers, has been an ongoing concern in politics and the public debate. While the majority of the debate has circled around the rights of medical doctors to refuse to refer women to hospitals for abortion, the recently adopted law on the ritual circumcision of baby boys has also sparked a sharp rise in conscientious objections by surgeons. Recently, the debate has taken an unexpected turn, as a nursing student asked to be exempt from serving pork during her practice placement, a request that was turned down and met with wide disapproval.

To better clarify the limits of the conscientious objector status, a government-appointed commission submitted its recommendations in September, 2016. The commission stressed the need to preserve objector status only for deeply held convictions, and recommended a mixed approach between legally established rights to exemption and locally adapted solutions.

  • September 2016: Denial of services based on religion

In September, Jaeren District Court delivered its verdict in the case of a hairdresser accused of denying a hijab-clad woman access to her salon. The hairdresser also allegedly verbally abused the woman, who complained to the anti-discrimination ombudsman. The ombudsman found the hairdresser guilty of discriminatory treatment under the Ethnicity Anti-Discrimination Act, §6.

Additionally, the state prosecutor charged her with the violation of the Penal Act §186, under which the denial of services on the basis of skin color or ethnicity, religion, homosexual orientation or disability is prohibited and punishable with fines or imprisonment up to six months. Citing the hairdresser’s extensive online antagonism against Muslims and Islam, the court found her claims that her opposition to the hijab was solely motivated by the political connotations of the garment and her discomfort with encountering hijab-clad women unconvincing, handing down a fine of NOK 10 000 (approx. EUR 1100). The case has been appealed, and the hairdresser and her lawyer have signaled their intent to take the case all the way to Strasbourg if necessary.

D 10 December 2019    AHelge Årsheim

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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