Norway

Last Updated 9 October 2020

Norway is a constitutional parliamentary monarchy of about five million inhabitants, bordering its Nordic neighbors Sweden and Finland, as well as Russia. Norway is rated as having the highest Human Development Index (HDI) in the world, according to the most recent data published in 2019.1http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/2019-human-development-index-ranking

 
Mostly Satisfactory
Free and Equal

Constitution and government

Freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression are protected by the Constitution of the Kingdom of Norway (Articles 16 and 100, respectively).2https://lovdata.no/dokument/NLE/lov/1814-05-17?q=grunnloven Successive amendments made between 2012-2014 assert the close relationship between Church and State, and adopt a human rights framework. Articles 2, 4 and 16 grant Christianity and the Church of Norway a privileged position:

Article 2 states: “Our values will remain our Christian and humanist heritage. This Constitution shall ensure democracy, a state based on the rule of law and human rights.”

Under Article 4 the monarch is required to at all times profess the Evangelical-Lutheran religion.”  Additionally, under Article 9, the monarch is required to invoke “God, the Almighty and Omniscient” in the oath of accession.

Article 16 of the Constitution prominently refers to Christianity, but affirms freedom of religion for all:

“All inhabitants of the realm shall have the right to free exercise of their religion. The Church of Norway, an Evangelical-Lutheran church, will remain the Established Church of Norway3 A more literal translation of the original Norwegian reads “the Norwegian Peoples’ Church”  and will as such be supported by the State. Detailed provisions as to its system will be laid down by law. All religious and belief communities should be supported on equal terms.”

In its concluding remarks to Norway’s periodic review – held in April 2018 – the UN Human Rights Committee raised concerns regarding the privileged position held by the Church of Norway (see more below) and made recommendations that the State include freedom of religion or belief in its chapter on human rights within the Constitution.45th of April 2018 – CCPR/C/NOR/C=//, online: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CCPR%2FC%2FNOR%2FCO%2F7&Lang=en

Church of Norway

The process to separate Church and State in Norway remains ongoing. In 2012, the ties between the Church of Norway (CoN) and the state were partly dissolved. However, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church (Den norske kirke) is still conceived of as “the Established Church of Norway” (Norges Folkekirke), the Parliament continues to decide law that regulates even some internal matters of the CoN. This can both be seen as a restriction of the religious freedom of the CoN, as well as a privileged position towards other religious and life stance communities.

From January 2017, the CoN was given status as a legal entity and the clergy are no longer “state officials” but employed by the church itself. However, funding for their salaries is still provided by the state.

Even though there is an ongoing process to separate state and church on the national level, at the local level the situation remains partially unchanged. By law local municipalities are required to build and take care of church buildings, while there is no such obligation to provide other belief communities with facilities like assembly halls or venues for ceremonial activities.

While the Norwegian state supports the Evangelical-Lutheran Church financially, other groups (religious or secular) may also register with the government to receive financial support. The degree of financial support is provided to all groups in proportion to their formally registered membership. In practice, however, some of the government financial support is exclusively reserved for the CoN, as the Norwegian state continues to finance tasks that the state used to fund when the CoN was an official entity. In contrast to other belief communities, the CoN does not receive a reduction in funding if its numbers decline.

Under the new common law (effective from 2021) on the CoN and other faith and life stance communities, the CoN will be funded both from the state and the local municipalities, while the others will have their funding altogether from the state. This will make it hard to decide whether the requisition in the Constitution to treat all belief communities equally actually is met, as the funding per member is supposed to be equal.5https://www.stortinget.no/no/Saker-og-publikasjoner/Saker/Sak/?p=76670

During the 42nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council in 2019, the Norwegian Humanist Association’s Senior International Adviser pointed out that while progress has been made in the past few years, Norway still faces problems “pertaining to the constitutional protection of freedom of religion or belief in Norway. Articles 2, 4 and 16 of the Constitution emphasize the state’s Christian values, demand that the king shall adhere to the Lutheran faith and places the Church of Norway in a privileged position.” She further commented that the Norwegian Humanist Association was worried that “these provisions send a signal of exclusion, and may lead to discrimination,” and thus called for “the government of Norway to amend these articles and to include the right to freedom of religion or belief into the human rights chapter of the Constitution, to bring it in line with international and European human rights law.”6humanists.international/2019/10/humanists-call-on-norway-to-make-constitution-more-inclusive/ These concerns have been echoed by other national human rights groups.

Education and children’s rights

A majority of state schools take pupils to participate in church services before Christmas, and some also do this throughout the year, like at Easter. Even though it is not mandatory for the pupils to take part, a lack of information on exemption, peer pressure and the absence of good alternatives results in some students participating against their will.

The Educational Directory launched new recommendations from 2016, proposing an opt-in-system, instead of the old opt-out-system. This was met with resistance from some headmasters and local politicians, as well as in the Parliament, where the Christian Democratic Party used its influence to reverse this recommendation. 

Under the center-right coalition government formed in 2013 and re-elected in 2017, there has been a more heated debate on immigration, integration and national identity, and this has also influenced the debate around religious education in schools and requirements to convey the Christian cultural heritage to all pupils. Currently rules stipulate that pupils cannot be involved in religious activities within religious education classes, but the school and church can invite pupils to participate in church services and other religious activities; in this context it is formally not considered to be religious instruction, but a way of conveying cultural heritage.

As of the autumn 2020 an entirely new and better balanced curriculum was introduced in the school system, including religious education. There are fewer competence aims in total in the new curriculum, and the competence aims are generally less detailed than before. Still, Christianity is given privilege, and mentioned specifically, while other religions and life stances are mostly referred to more generally. It is too early to say if the new curriculum changes the education in the classrooms, as many of the textbooks used remain the same.7https://www.udir.no/lk20/rle01-03

Family, community and society

While the majority of the population remain nominally affiliated with the Church of Norway (69% as of 31 December 2019), the most recent figures from Statistics Norway describe a steady decline in number of church baptisms, church confirmations and church membership.

The fastest growing group is in fact the “nones”, those that don’t affiliate with any faith community. According to 2018 statistics, they comprise about 17% of the population, more than the members of all other belief communities outside the CoN.8https://www.ssb.no/kirke_kostra

In reality, polls over recent years have consistently shown Norway to be among the least religious countries in the world, as measured by a relatively small percentage of the population believing in a personal god, a low percentage describing themselves as religious, and very low rates for regular church attendance. For a large percentage of church members, church affiliation is of a nominal (“cultural”) rather than of a religious nature.9fritanke.no/andelen-som-ikke-tror-pa-gud-oker-sterkt-gudstroen-svekkes/19.10773

The Church of Norway is adjusting quite well to this phenomenon, eagerly embracing the very Nordic/Scandinavian concept of the “Peoples’ churches”; not so much belief or god left in that church, but a lot of buildings all over the country where the church provides ceremonies and cultural activities instead of religious activities as their main task. This “cultivation of religion” is strongly supported by many politicians and political parties.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedom of expression is guaranteed in the constitution and generally upheld in practice. The state provides support for civil society actors, political parties, NGOs and promotes the free press.

The largest non-religious organization is the Norwegian Humanist Association, Human-Etisk Forbund (HEF) with close to 100,000 members, as of September 2020 (HEF is a Member of the Humanists International). In principle non-religious groups, including Humanist organizations, are treated on equal footing with religious groups.

“Blasphemy” abolished

In 2015, Norway formally abolished its remaining “blasphemy” law (formerly under section 142 of the Penal Code, banning public expression of “contempt” for religions recognised by the state). There had been no successful prosecutions under the law for many decades, though there had been threats in relation to republication of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons as recently as 2006. In 2020 some Muslim groups have proclaimed the need for a ban on burning the Quran, after a right-wing group hostile towards Muslims, SIAN, arranged several burnings the previous year.

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