The title of the initiative
Towards Equality in Finland – A citizens’ initiative for equality between all religions and convictions
The form of the initiative
A proposal for instigating new legislation
The contents of the initiative
The state must respect the belief systems of all its citizens, including the non-religious. Laws must be changed to dismantle the State Church and to make the public sector act neutrally between convictions. This is the only way to achieve full equality between citizens in Finland.
At the moment, Finnish law favours religion in at least the following ways:
The Church is a public body, i.e. an organ of the public sector.
Church membership fee is levied as Church Tax.
Part of the corporate tax revenue is automatically apportioned to the Church
Non-denominational graveyards are under the care of the Lutheran Church
Religious holidays are set in the church code, and thus the parliament is unable to change these holidays without the agreement of the Church synod.
Church members are not allowed to study the general class on ethics and world views (in Finnish: ”elämänkatsomustieto”) in comprehensive school, but are forced to take classes studying their own religion, instead.
The Church and other religious organisations have the right to wed people, but non-religious organisations do not.
Church privileges are an affront to the human rights of the non-religious, and of the followers of non-privileged religions. The public sector should be strictly secular, and religion should be allowed to be kept a private matter. The Church must be stripped of its privileged role as State Church so that everybody may be treated equally regardless of their convictions.
To implement these changes requires changing many laws, including the constitution of Finland. The government must undertake preparations towards such legislation.
Reasons for the initiative
Since 2008, the percentage of the population who are members of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church has declined at a rate of about one percentage point every year. At the end of 2012, it was only 76% of the population. The membership figures vary widely between different parts of the country. In Helsinki, only 59% of citizens were members of the Church at the end of 2012, and in certain parishes the share is about to drop below 50%. Consequently, there no longer exists a firm foundation for the role of the Lutheran Church as the official State Church.
The constitution speaks of the freedom of religion and conscience, and of the equality of people, but these basic rights have not been fully implemented in legislation. Even the government proposal that served as the basis for the constitution (HE 309/1993) states that from the equality of people follows ”the necessity for the public sector to treat all religious organizations and personal convictions equally.”
Laws that need to be changed
The legislation of Finland includes the following laws that result in privileging the Evangelical-Lutheran Church, the Orthodox Church, and other registered religions:
1) The Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland, and the Orthodox Church of Finland, are public bodies, i.e. considered part to the public sector. The rules regulating these churches are legislated within their own subset of laws.
2) The Evangelical-Lutheran Church is mentioned separately in the Constitution. The Parliament has delegated away some of its power of legislation to the Church itself in the Church Law, according to which the Church is the only authority with the power to propose, amend and repeal existing legislation regarding church matters. As a result, the Parliament has no power to decide, for example, on the matter of church holidays, without the consent of the Church Council.
3) The Evangelical-Lutheran Church and the Orthodox Church have the unique right to levy taxes. Church membership fee, i.e. the Church Tax, is collected by the state, in part via preliminary taxation, alongside other taxes.
4) In addition to the Church Tax, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church is granted a portion of the Corporate Tax. The Orthodox Church also receives a small portion of the Corporate Tax, together with direct government aid. The State, if it so chose, could finance the upkeep of historically valuable buildings in direct government aid that was earmarked for this purpose. The state would be able to take care of the maintenance of the population register by itself.
5) The reason why the Evangelical-Lutheran Church is granted a portion of the Corporate Tax is sometimes argued to follow, in part, from the fact that the Church is responsible for burial services even for non-members, and that the Church is required by law to upkeep non-denominational graveyards. However, the burial of non-Christians on Church soil, without their consent, violates their human rights. The upkeep of non-denominational graveyards should be granted to the municipalities, together with burial services.
6) School Laws favour the Evangelical-Lutheran Church by forcing all students, who are members of congregations, in comprehensive school, and in high school, to take devotional religious lessons. Non-church members may choose between religious classes and general classes in ethics and world views (in Finnish “elämänkatsomustieto”). Church members do not have this choice.
7) Churches and registered religious organizations, in the Marriage Law, are granted the right to wed people, but non-religious organizations, and non-registered religious organizations, are not.
8) In Criminal Law, the decree on the protection of religions includes protection against blasphemy. It is not the purpose of the Criminal Law to protect belief systems from criticism, but to protect human beings from libel.
9) The law regulating the Finnish Broadcasting Company (in Finnish “Yleisradio”) includes a notion that public media should provide devotional programs.
There exist numerous other laws where State Churches and religions are granted privileges. The whole legislative array needs to be revised to root out even the smallest of violations.
Public sector practices religion
From the privileged position of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as a state church follows another problem – one that has to do more with traditions than with actual laws: the use of public power is intertwined with many religious ceremonies. The parliament, the army, the universities, public kindergartens and public schools all participate in organizing religious worship and devotional services. Congregations have a presence in schools in the form of morning assemblies; and they help organize religious programs in kindergartens.
The European Court of Human Rights’ interpretation of freedom of religion includes the right not to reveal one’s religious conviction or lack thereof. The public sector, in fact, tacitly coerces people who are under its wing to participate in its religious ceremonies. By not participating, the person is forced to reveal the fact that he or she holds different convictions.
In order to get rid of this problem, the constitution must be amended to contain a declaration of separation between church and state. The state and the municipalities should, in all their dealings, be secular and act neutrally toward different belief systems. Religion and other convictions must be allowed to be kept a private matter.
The government must undertake preparations toward legislation aiming to remove all privileges granted to churches and religions and declare the secularity of the public sector. Only with such legislation can true freedom of religion and equality amongst people be guaranteed. Such legislation is further needed to credibly guarantee the neutrality and impartiality of the public sector, as stipulated by the European Convention on Human Rights.