Last Updated 30 November 2020

Denmark is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system of government. The Kingdom of Denmark encompasses Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Systemic Discrimination
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Constitution and government

The Constitution1 and other laws and policies protect freedom of religion or belief, as well as freedom of expression, association and assembly. However, religious societies are not on equal footing when it comes to funding the vocational training of religious ministers, the cost of maintenance of churches and religious houses, the partial financing of salaries of clergy, and the cost of running the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs itself, especially with regard to privileges afforded to the established state church (see below).

Chapter VII of the Constitution regulates church matters i.e. the right to religious assembly, however, also the right not to contribute financially to any church of a religion that the citizen does not share. The Constitution states in Article 70 that “No person can, because of his religious belief or descent, be deprived of access to the full enjoyment of civil and political rights.” Neither can a citizen, for religious reasons, shirk from civic duty.

Article 67 of the Danish Constitution states: “citizens shall be at liberty to form congregations for the worship of God in a manner which is in accordance with their convictions, provided that nothing contrary to good morals or public order shall be taught or done”. The language of this provision effectively means that the Danish Constitution does not guarantee freedom of religion for people with non-theistic beliefs. This definition is considerably narrower than that of the European and international conventions that Denmark has ratified — in particular article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

State church privileges

In Articles 4 and 6, the Constitution states that the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) is the “church of the Danish people and is as such supported by the state”, and that the reigning monarch must be a member of the ELC (though the monarch is not the head of the church).

Integration of church and state is significant, with the ELC as well as other churches and religious organizations being, from the point of view of the administration, governed by the Danish Minister for Ecclesiastical Affairs. Article 69 of the Constitution states that “Rules for religious bodies other than the (ELC) shall be laid down by Statute”. However, this has never been implemented.

The ELC is primarily funded through the state-run voluntary taxes deducted through payroll. Members receive a tax credit for their donations to the ELC. Voluntary taxes account for an estimated 86% of the ELC’s operating budget; the remaining 14% is provided through a combination of voluntary donations by congregants and government grants. Members of other recognized religious communities cannot contribute via payroll deduction but may donate to their own community voluntarily and receive an income tax credit.2 In 2015, Dkr. 765,2 mil. of the government’s annual budget was allocated to the ELC. Such direct yearly support is not available to other religious or secular belief groups.

The ELC is mandated to run a number of secular public functions, including management of non-sectarian cemeteries and the civil registration of citizen’s data such a births, deaths, names, church marriages and membership.

Registration of religious communities

By law, religious communities are required to register with the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs in order to receive tax benefits. Recognized religious groups have the right to perform legal marriage ceremonies, name and baptize children with legal effect, issue legal death certificates, among other rights.3

Religious groups seeking registration must submit to the Faith Registry in the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs a document on the group’s central traditions; a description of its most important rituals; a copy of its rules, regulations, and organizational structure; an audited financial statement; information about the group’s leadership; and a statement on the number of adult members permanently residing in the country. The Ministry of Justice makes the final decision on registration applications after receiving recommendations from a group consisting of a lawyer, religious historian, sociologist of religion, and nonordained theologian. Religious groups that do not submit the annual financial statement or other required information may lose their registration status.4

The total number of registered religious communities and congregations was estimated to have reached 450 by the end of 2018.5 In the same year, the authorities revoked the registration of six groups for failing to provide required information to the Faith Ministry.

The Faroe Islands

An autonomous self-governing region in the Kingdom of Denmark of about 53,000 inhabitants, situated approximately halfway between Scotland and Iceland, the Faroe Islands are an archipelago of 18 islands and other smaller islets. The Human Development Index for the Faroes Islands is on par with other Nordic countries. Being a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, the Danish Constitution is therefore, the sovereign law, however, the Faroe Islands have a home-rule law, a constituent administrative division of state power to the Faroese government – mostly on internal affairs. The Faroese political landscape is somewhat more conservative compared to its northern European neighbours.

The laws of the Faroe Islands have some contradictory clauses – affecting religious and non-religious minorities alike – in that they promote freedoms and discrimination at the same time. The dominant Lutheran Church of the Faroe Islands is a national or state-church, which is given special precedence in the law and it functions as a state entity with national tax income and a national registry. However, the law also clearly stipulates that governance of the state and church bodies are not to be interconnected, or one to affect the other directly. Løgtingslóg No.60 (7 June 2007) regarding the National Church (Fólkakirkjan) stipulates: “The state supports the National Church.”

There is a church-tax and the government finances church expenditure, discriminating against other religion or belief groups by their exclusion from any similar provision. In addition, having been baptised into the church, citizens are expected to individually inform the Faroese Tax Authorities that they are not a member of the State-Church, to be exempt from the tax (Løgtingslóg No.61, 7 June 2007, on Financial matters of the National Church). There is also an unnecessarily complicated and personal/intrusive procedure to leave the Church, or to opt out of its taxes: the process involves going to the priest of the parish in which you were baptised, and filling in a form and answering questions as to why you are leaving.


Like the Faroe Islands, Greenland is subject to the Danish Constitution. As such, Greenland has its own evangelical Lutheran church that is state-subsidized, called “Folkekirke”. All citizens are obliged to pay taxes to the church, irrespective of their beliefs.

Education and children’s rights

In Denmark, the child’s right to education dates back to 1814. Both the right to education and freedom from unwanted educational bias is stated in Article 83 of the Constitution.

The Danish primary and secondary schools are represented by the ‘Folkeskole’, free for everybody. “It is education itself that is compulsory, not school” says the Ministry for Children, Education and Gender Equality; educational standards are to be met not only by public or private schools alike but also in home-teaching.

The state provides financial support to all public and private schools, including religious schools.7

14% of all basic school students attend private schools, including what the Ministry describes as: small independent schools in rural districts (friskoler); large independent schools in urban districts (privatskoler); religious schools; progressive free schools; schools with a particular educational aim, such as Rudolf Steiner schools; German minority schools; and immigrant schools. According to the Ministry:

“The bottom line is that private schools will be recognized and receive government financing regardless of the ideological, religious, political or ethnic motivation behind their establishment … private schools must be of a minimum size in number of pupils, be organized as a self-governing institution, muster some level of self-financing, can only spend the school’s budget on strictly educational matters and cannot be run for private profit…”

Religion classes are compulsory in all schools whether public or private between grades 1-9, although students may be exempted if a parent presents a request in writing. No alternative classes are offered.8

The subject “Kristendomskundskab” (“Christian Scriptures” or “Christian Knowledge”), is the only subject regulated directly in the Education Act, under Article 6. The title is somewhat misleading as the subject is broader than Christian belief alone.

However, considerable emphasis is put on Evangelical Lutheran theology.

Since 1975 religious instruction (or preaching) as such is precluded from the Christian Knowledge curriculum, and other world religions and “philosophies of life” form part of the religious knowledge taught in more senior classes. Students are intended to gain familiarity with religious texts, again with the Bible most prominent, also with the history of religion, and an understanding of other belief systems. It is stated that students should be enabled to make up their minds about norms, values, and freedom of choice in a democratic society.

Since 1856 students have, in principle, had the right to withdraw from religion classes with parental consent, though some religious private schools may deny this right in practice. Today, this right is stated in the Education Act in the very same Article 6 that directs education in “religious knowledge”. If a student is 15 years old or older, the student and parent must jointly request the student’s exemption. Remembering that, “it is education itself that is compulsory, not school”, this goes for religious education too: parents withdrawing children from religious education in public schools are obliged to teach at home. The Education Act says: the parent must declare in writing to the schoolmaster that they take responsibility for teaching ‘education on religious knowledge’, and to do so as to meet the same standards as for public;

A private school can inform the Ministry that their school’s values do not cohere with “religious knowledge” in order to omit the classes altogether. However, parents choosing private schools that do offer “religious knowledge” classes may be told that exemption from such classes is not possible.

Education in the Faroe Islands

In the Faroe Islands, schools and day-care institutions are affected by the stipulations of the Faroese Education Act, which unlike the status of the Church, specifically implies a Christian education. One school subject is called “Christianity” and teaches Christian teachings, theology and ethics, though in recent years there have been small additions of Jewish, Muslim and Norse religions added to the curriculum. Yet, it remains rather more proselytising than educational, and excludes non-religious or secular philosophies.

There is no formal obligation for any child to attend or participate in religious instruction, however, there is no alternative provided.

There is also Morning Assembly in schools which includes prayer and the singing of Christian hymnals, and day-care have meal-time prayers, to satisfy the requirements of the Law concerning education:

“Stk. 3. Public School should in agreement and cooperation with the parents help give the students a Christian and ethical upbringing.”
— Chapter 1. Public School Law: Public School Objectives

According to Humanistisk Samfund, a Christian boarding school “Efterskole” was recently established by evangelical communities, and there are reports that indicate students are coerced into religious practices.

Family, community and society

The Constitution (Chapter VIII, Article 78) grants citizens the entitlement to freely form associations for any lawful purpose. It is a criterion to obtain recognition as a ‘religious community’ or organization that the community respects freedom of religion, meaning the right to change religion.

Recognised and approved religious communities, however, enjoy a number of additional rights, including: the right to perform legally binding marriage ceremonies under the Danish Marriage Act; the right to residence permits for foreign preachers under the Aliens Act; churches and cemeteries are exempt from real-estate tax. (Financial contributions to such religious communities are also tax-deductible under the Danish Tax Assessment Act, though this Act applies also to secular associations.)

In 2012, the government passed a bill obliging the Danish State Church to perform legally binding same-sex marriage ceremonies. However, priests can refuse to wed same-sex couples due to religious beliefs. Same-sex couples now have a choice of a marriage ceremony taking place in a state church, or a marriage to be performed by a secular registrar or mayor. The statute does not regulate religious communities other than the ELC.


The privileging of monotheistic faith and worship by the Constitution has created serious knock-on effects on the participation of non-religious persons in Danish politics and civil society. For example, non-religious organisations are regularly excluded from participating in government-led committees discussing important ethical questions, and are excluded from commenting on new legislation related to religion and belief.

The Danish Institute of Human Rights has also reported that atheists (as well as Christian converts, women and LGBTI people), are “particularly vulnerable to harassment or attempts at negative social control” in the asylum system.10 Their report states that much of this stems from the fact that many immigration officials have a poor understanding of religious persecution and may take decisions that inadvertently cause harm to minorities. An example of this includes forcing a someone who is non-religious to live in a religious community, where they may face pressure, harassment and even threats of violence for their decision to leave the religion.11

Violent acts and harassment targeting members of the Jewish and Muslim community are relatively common. According to police statistics for 2018, there were 112 religiously-motivated hate crimes reported.12

The pursuit of cultural homogeneity

The Danish government’s pursuit of religious and cultural homogeneity has led it to pass a series of discriminatory assimilationist laws aimed at forcefully integrating immigrants and ethnic minorities into the “Danish” way of life, in violation of their basic rights to non-discrimination, culture and religion.

Laws which have been collectively described by the government as the “ghetto package” have as their purported aim to reduce the effects of parallel society and criminal behaviour in Denmark.13

The 22 proposals in the ‘package’ were passed in 2018 and include the following discriminatory laws and policies:

  1. Powers for the police to define areas as ‘increased punishment zones’ in which punishments for certain crimes (eg, violence, vandalism, burglary, threatening behaviour, arson, drug offences, possession of weapons) can be doubled.
  2. Penalties for immigrant parents who take their children on extended visits to their country of origin — described as “re-education visits” —in that way may have serious negative consequences for their “healthy development” in line with Danish values and norms.
  3. A mandatory pre-school programme in which children living in neighbourhoods designated as vulnerable “ghettos” must be separated from their parents for at least 25 hours a week to attend a targeted and intensive course to support their “social integration, personal and cognitive development and democratic insight.” If parents do not allow a child to register, or the child does not use the day care offer sufficiently, the municipality may decide to terminate child benefit. The requirement lasts until a mandatory language evaluation is carried out when the child is 2 or 3 years old. If the test is not passed, the child cannot start school.

In addition to the “ghetto package”, other forms of discriminatory policies exist that are specifically directed towards Muslims and apply throughout Denmark. These include:

  1. A ban on the wearing of full-face veil covering (known as the ‘burqa ban’). A violation of the ban triggers a fine of 1,000 Danish Kroner, and the fine will increase if the ban is subsequently violated again. It is estimated that less than 200 women wear the burqa or niqab in Denmark.14
  2. A policy making it mandatory to shake hands with the local mayor at the citizenship ceremony if one wants to be a Danish citizen. The law has clear Islamaphobic undertones, given that many Muslims prefer not to shake hands with members of the opposite sex.

Paradoxically, while purportedly aimed at integrating minorities, the laws in fact send the message that may have a counter-effect to the sense of belonging, because they single out certain groups for nonconformity through the use of sanctions and penalties.

Faroese society

Faroese society is considered closely knit. In most other places in the modern world beyond first cousin family relations are distant, yet in the Faroes first to fourth-cousins are likely still considered family.

However, with the closeness can come a pressure to conform. Some individuals have been excluded from families for criticizing religion, or because of their irreligion. On a societal level the view of the irreligious and other religions apart from Christianity is often negative. Specifically, atheists and agnostics are viewed as immoral or morally deficient people because of their non-conformity to religious norms, which is a view that propagates distrust.

Not surprisingly humanists and humanism have the same negative denotations attached. Humanism is not only viewed as some negative and morally deficient, but also the word humanism or humanist is often associated with global human depravity. That is, in the sense that wrongdoings and issues effecting globally today, or domestic in the Faroes are becomes of humanist behaviour and humanism as a teaching. Evidently, both humanism and atheism are in these instances misunderstood and misinterpreted terms, however, the view such as it is, makes criticism of religions or publicity of anything not religious extremely difficult to convey.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

The cartoon crisis and Copenhagen shootings

Freedom of expression is generally upheld and is not problematically restricted; the Penal Code 1995 outlines restrictions on incitement to hatred in Section 266.b.15 According to the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RWB), Denmark was ranked as the number one country in both 2004 and 2005, however following the cartoon crisis dropped in 2006 to number 19. It has subsequently risen to place 3rd of 180 countries examined in 2020.16

The cartoon crisis of 2005 surrounded the publication of drawings of the Prophet Mohammed published by the national Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The issue of violent protests and reprisals against these satirical images as well as other critical discussion around Islam have become part and parcel of the public debate on free speech, self-censorship and

One of the cartoonists, Kurt Westergaard, has been forced to live under police protection since 2005. In 2008 and 2010, attempts to assassinate Westergaard failed,18 but have fuelled the heated debate on religious extremism and free expression.

In February 2015, only a month after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Denmark suffered a terrorist attack at ‘Krudttønden’, Østerbro and a nearby Jewish Synagogue. Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks had been invited to a meeting under the title “Art, Blasphemy and Free Speech” in Copenhagen. One person was killed and three wounded when a gunman opened fire on the building from outside. The same evening, the shooter attacked a Jewish Synagogue and another person was shot dead while two more were injured.

“Blasphemy” law abolished in 2017

On 2 June 2017, the Danish parliament voted in favour of the abolition of it’s blasphemy law. This marked a great step forward for Danish freedom of speech.

The “blasphemy” ban dated back to 1866. The law had come under Chapter 15 on crimes violating public law and order, and the provision was sometimes used historically as a form of anti-hatred legislation, for example in 1938 it was employed against a number of Nazis accusing Jews of assaults on non-Jewish girls. However, it was also used in more frivolous cases, for example in 1946 when a couple, one of whom was dressed up like a priest, were fined for baptising a doll at a carnival. The largely dormant provision was nevertheless called on eight times in the following 60 years.

There was a prominent attempt to invoke the “blasphemy” law during the 2005 Prophet Mohammed cartoon crisis, against the publication Jyllands-Posten. The Prosecutor General did not file charges against the newspaper, citing freedom of expression. However, pressure to abolish the law increased significantly from this point onwards, with lawmakers and some human rights groups pushing for review and repeal.

A proposal to abolish the law was set forth by Bruno Jerup from the left-wing party Enhedslisten. This gained momentum from left to right on the Danish political spectrum. Supported by both secular arguments and liberal freedom of speech arguments, parliament passed the law in 2017 and “blasphemy” law was finally abolished.

The “Imam Law” and Folkekirken

A provision of the Danish Penal Code (§ 136, article 3) commonly referred to as the “Imam Law”, has been in place since January 2017. This law criminalizes the explicit condoning of certain criminal acts in the context of religious training. The law has been criticized as a threat to the freedom of religion or belief, in that – regardless of the intent of the law – it subjects all religious leaders or proponents to a wider interpretative range of criminal behaviour than other citizens.

In May 2016 the government and four supporting opposition parties agreed on a ‘Unity Paper’, in part aimed at “criminalization of explicit approbation of certain punishable acts as part of religious teaching or training” (appendix 7). This was a central pretext to the creation of the “Imam Law”

The ‘Unity Paper’ proposed a series of changes to the Penal Code, Marriage Law and the laws on schools and adult education, as well as other actions to punish or prevent ‘explicit approbation’. This includes restrictions on the ability to perform legal weddings as a religious community and demands that a religious preacher attend a course in Danish laws and democracy (appendix 4).  A diverse group of organizations protested the proposal, among them the Danish PEN society and 16 different religious groups and congregations (primarily Lutheran Evangelical);

In the latter half of 2017, new legislation (L19) on the religious communities outside of the state church, Folkekirken, came before parliament. Some of the less controversial elements of the ‘Unity Paper’ have been carried over into this draft law.

During the legislative process surrounding L19, the Enhedslisten party called for the inclusion of non-religious life stance communities under this legislation, with comparisons made to the Norwegian model, which would improve systemic equality between religious and non-religious groups under freedom of religion or belief in Denmark.

“Christianization” of the Danish national media

2019 saw the renewal of the national media outlet Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s (DR) contract. Drafted by Danish politicians, it requires that DR’s programs must make clear that Danish society ‘has roots in Christianity’. Whilst it is unclear how this has affected the Danish press in practice, this is seen as an attempt to underline the idea of Denmark as a Christian nation.

Freedom of expression in the Faroe Islands

The Faroe Islands has a Blasphemy Law on statue, though no one has been prosecuted under it. According to the Penal Code (Chapter 15de Forbrydelser mod den offentlige orden og fred – Crimes against public order and peace):

“140 He who publicly insults or mocks something in this country any legally established religious community’s doctrines or worship, is punishable by fine, or imprisonment up to four months.” 

While the law does not appear to be in active use, serious critical discussion of religion would likely meet with social opprobrium.

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