Last Updated 29 November 2017

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 constitution 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 the 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.

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 member-tax amounting in 2015 to Dkr. 6,4 mia. equivalent of 0,88 % of the taxable income. The state provides the ELC with further financial support covering some 12% of the annual church budget. The government’s annual budget for 2015 allocated Dkr. 765,2 mil. 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.

The Faroe Islands

An autonomous self-governing region in the Kingdom of Denmark of about 49,000 inhabitants, situated approximately halfway between Scotland and Iceland, the Faroe Islands is an archipelago of 18 islands and other smaller islets. The Human Development Index for the Faroes Islands 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 self-contradictory clauses, in that they promote freedoms and discrimination at the same time. Affecting religious and non-religious minorities alike. 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 the 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 he/she is 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 again, or to opt out of its taxes; the process 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.

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 school is 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.

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…”

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 actually 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 school.

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

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. Same-sex couples now have a choice of a marriage ceremony taking place in an ECL church, or a marriage to be performed by a secular registrar or mayor. The statute does not regulate religious communities other than the (ELC).

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 criticising 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, Section 266.b, and individual defamation, Section 267). 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.

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 terrorism.

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, but have fuelled the heated debate on religious extremism and free expression.

In February 2015, Denmark suffered an attack widely considered as an intended “copycat” to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January. 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 the 2nd of June 2017, the Danish parliament voted heavily for the abolishment 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 the following 60 years.

The road to abolition

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.

In 2013, The Danish Institute for Human Rights warned that “it cannot be excluded that the prohibition of blasphemy in Denmark would be enforced in connection with the interpretation of religious texts, which makes it difficult to meet the requirement of predictability in a state based on the rule of law”.

In January 2015 the Criminal Law Council under the Ministry of Justice finally released their assessment on the “blasphemy” law (Penal Code, Article 140) which had began in 2011. Tasked with weighing up pros and cons for the law, the Council presented the following arguments in favour of a repeal of the provision: that abolishing the “blasphemy” provision would in no way compromise Denmark’s human rights commitments; society had moved on and the provision was outdated; it was out of step with European consensus since few other European countries maintain such a law; it was out of step with the international human rights consensus which is in favour of decriminalizing “blasphemy”; it was unclear how the provision might be used in relation to the expression of specifically religious doctrines or religious worship, and therefore failed to satisfy the condition of “foreseeability”; the use of criminal sanctions against “blasphemers” would in practice only cause any “blasphemous” utterance to be propagated more widely; it was an unnecessary restriction on freedom of expression and that state resources would be better spent upholding free expression over enforcing the “blasphemy” law. They also noted in favour of retaining the provision, that it functioned as part of the penal code as a deterrent to potentially socially provocative behaviour.

In February 2015, the new government called a hearing on the Council’s assessment, and concluded it would not set forward a bill to repeal the law, favouring the rationale for retaining the “blasphemy” provision; the government cited a desire not to remove a tool for the prosecution of acts of social provocation, such as the burning of religious books.

Several human rights bodies responded to this decision through 2015 with roughly the following argument: that genuine incitement to hatred and violence are prohibited in law by other means, therefore the perpetuation of a wider “blasphemy” ban may be regarded as surplus to requirements, with free expression suffering as collateral damage. In particular, on 2 March, 2015, Danish PEN expressed sympathy for the government’s concerns regarding law and order, but nevertheless called on the government to repeal the law, arguing that freedom of religion “must also include freedom to doubt, to criticise and – yes, to satirize”. PEN argued that mockery of the sacred was not a goal they were seeking to uphold in itself, but that there can be no open and free society if religion cannot be disputed.

On 12 May 2015, the Danish Institute for Human Rights recommended the abolition of the “blasphemy” law as a necessity for the upholding of “individual human rights”.

On April 30, 2015, Justitia answered the national hearing and again recommended repeal. Justitia, the Danish judicial think-tank, monitors issues of human rights and, in particular, free speech violations.

In the journal “Criminal” (No. 9, 2014) and a similar statement on their homepage, Justitia had already recommended the abolition of the blasphemy provision. They note that the provision is unclear and that it breaches the principle of equality, since religious feelings prevail over “secular world-views not covered by the same protection”. Justitia says:

“To retain a provision where the contents are no longer consistent with a society’s basic values from a potential risk that extremists will commit violence seems to be a concerning legitimization of anti-democratic values. Maintaining the blasphemy provision makes it harder to credibly criticize the blasphemy legislation and its enforcement in non-democratic countries. In a democratic society… the regard for fundamental freedoms should precede more pragmatic considerations. On this basis, it seems high time to repeal the Penal Code § 140.”
— Director Jacob Mchangama, Justitia

Finally, 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

According to Article 21 of the constitution; the State does not have the right to intervene either in the appointment or installation of ministers of any religion or to forbid these ministers from corresponding with their superiors. A civil wedding must always precede the religious blessing of a marriage, apart from any exceptions that are established by the law.

Article 181 (section 1) states that the salaries and pensions of religious ministers are paid for by the State and the amounts required are charged annually to the national budget. Section 2 declares that the salaries and pensions of representatives of organizations recognized by the law as providing moral assistance according to a non-denominational philosophical concept are also to be paid for by the Belgian Government.

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 condonement of certain criminal acts in the context of religious training. The law has been criticised 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.

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 public 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.

Highlighted cases

In 2014, the Parliamentary Ombudsman sharply criticised the public Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR) for exercising censorship against the TV presenter Adam Holm. In an opinion piece under the heading “Den guddummelige tragedie” (“The Undivine Tragedy”) in the national newspaper Politiken (12 May 2013), Holm had written that the tragic death of a friend’s son in a car accident had “reinforced my already intense dislike of religion as an explanatory framework”; he asked “How can a God who is called good and mild, allow such blatant injustice?”; he criticised both Christian and Islamic theodicy, and lamented in particular the spread of the conservative and oppressive views of “hopefully a minority” of Muslims. The Broadcasting Corporation at first castigated Holm for supposedly breaching impartiality, on the grounds he is a presenter for the public broadcaster. However, they withdrew their accusation following criticism from the Ombudsman to the effect that he had every right to express his views in his personal capacity.

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