STRASBOURG, France (CN) — Europe’s top rights court on Tuesday rejected a complaint from Jehovah’s Witnesses who argued a Finnish ban on data collection violated their religious freedom.
The European Court of Human Rights cleared Helsinki of any wrongdoing after Finland’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled in 2018 that information the religious group collected about its door-to-door preaching was covered by data protection rules.
The Strasbourg-based court found no violations of the European Convention of Human Rights, which underpins the court and protects the civil and political rights of Europeans. The seven-judge panel cited a decision by the European Union’s highest court, the European Court of Justice, from 2018 which found the data collection violated EU law.
The rights court found that the Jehovah’s Witnesses failed to provide any evidence of a chilling effect on their evangelism.
“In the absence of any convincing arguments by the applicant community, the court cannot discern how simply asking for, and receiving, the data subject’s consent would hinder the essence of the applicant community’s freedom of religion,” the judges wrote.
Following a 2011 complaint to Finland’s Office of the Data Protection Ombudsman, the country's Data Protection Board told the Jehovah's Witnesses organization it could not collect personal data - such as names, physical descriptions or socioeconomic status - without consent. The decision gave the group six months to adapt their practices.
The U.S.-based Christian denomination considers door-to-door evangelizing an integral part of its religious practice. The group appealed the decision, arguing the church had no system for such data collection, and if its individual members kept notes on their canvassing it was only for personal use.
Eventually, Finland’s top court referred the case to the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice to clarify EU data privacy rules. The 27-member political and economic union passed the Data Protection Directive in 1995, which regulated how personal data could be collected and stored across the bloc. That legislation has since been superseded by the General Data Protection Regulation.
The Jehovah's Witnesses were unable to convince the EU high court that the data collection was only part of note-taking for follow-up visits. In 2018, judges found the information was not for personal or household use, which is exempt from data privacy regulations, and told the group it would need to comply with rules governing data collection and storage.
Finland’s Supreme Administrative Court based its own 2018 ruling in the case on the Court of Justice decision, determining the religious order was the “controller” of any data collected - a designation laid out in the EU regulations - and would need to comply with the Finnish Personal Data Act.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses complained to the Strasbourg court that the requirements violated their religious freedom and that the Finnish court violated their fair trial rights by refusing to hold oral hearings in the case.
The rights court was unpersuaded by the need for an oral argument and made its own decision without a hearing. In cases “where there are no issues of credibility or contested facts,” the proceedings can be handled entirely in writing, the judges wrote.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses did not dispute that members took notes during door-knocking and used maps and other aids during their evangelizing.
According to the organization's website, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have some 18,000 adherents in Finland, whose population is 5.5 million. Headquartered in Warwick, New York, the group is an offshoot of Christianity founded in 1870.
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