Jehovah’s Witnesses Lose Appeal on Data-Protection Rules

The website for Jehovah’s Witnesses includes this picture of ministers in Turku, Finland.

(CN) – Europe’s highest court supported the Finnish government on Tuesday for requiring Jehovah’s Witnesses to observe data-protection regulations when collecting information in the course of door-to-door preaching.

Before the case was referred to the European Court of Justice, the referring court in Finland compiled a case record about the practice at issue.

Taken without the knowledge or consent of the persons concerned, the data includes names, addresses, and details about their religious beliefs and their family circumstances.

Jehovah’s Witnesses collect such data to keep their memories fresh for follow-up visits, and tips on note taking have appeared in at least one of the preaching magazines popular among Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The court also found that the church used to prepare forms for its members to help them compile their data, but the use of the forms was abandoned after a recommendation from Finland’s Data Protection Supervisor.

In 2013 the Finnish Data Protection Board issued an order that said government regulations for processing personal data would have to be observed if the Jehovah’s Witnesses Community continued tracking details on its door-to-door preaching.

Though the church’s challenge to the order was successful, the government is likely to win its appeal after Finland’s Supreme Administrative Court put the case on hold to hear input from the EU’s top court in Luxembourg.

On Tuesday, that court’s Grand Chamber found that regulation of the data here is permissible even though it is part of a religious procedure.

“The preaching extends beyond the private sphere of a member of a religious community who is a preacher,” the ruling states.

Rejecting the argument that the notes should be considered a personal or household activity, the court found that “the words ‘personal or household,’ within the meaning of that provision, refer to the activity of the person processing the personal data and not to the person whose data are processed.”

Furthermore “an activity cannot be regarded as being purely personal or domestic,” the ruling states, “where its purpose is to make the data collected accessible to an unrestricted number of people.”

The court called it clear that a potentially unlimited number of people can access the data here since the congregations use the data to compile a “refusal register” of people who have asked Jehovah’s Witnesses to stop contacting them.

A spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses released a statement Tuesday afternoon on the court’s ruling: “Since this case is related to a complex area of data-protection law, Jehovah’s Witnesses will analyze the decision carefully and look at how governments within the European Union interpret that judgement.”

Eight men serve on the governing body of Jehovah’s Witness, which is headquartered in Warwick, New York. A denomination of Christianity, Jehovah’s Witnesses say they have 291 congregations in Finland, with 18,372 ministers in a country whose population is 5.5 million.

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