Religious Freedom and Persecution
Since Jehovah’s Witness beliefs require abstention from military duty, patriotic behaviour and blood transfusion, as well as participation in public evangelising, they are often test cases for the extent to which religious freedom will be permitted by a particular government. But, according to Richardson (2015) and Chryssides (2016), they are also one of the most litigious religious groups, bringing at least some of the test cases themselves in a bid to strategically use the legal system to set precedents which might ensure their future benefit. According to Chryssides, Jehovah’s Witnesses, based on the actions of the Apostle Paul who appealed to Caesar when he was on trial, seek “to secure the maximum benefits available under the law” (2016: 123). Pauline Côté and James T. Richardson (2001) have described the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ use of the legal system as a form of “disciplined litigation” in which the Watch Tower Society has produced sophisticated materials to educate members about their legal rights and how to be effective plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses in legal actions which defend Jehovah’s Witnesses rights. Jehovah’s Witnesses have thus been happy and willing “to bring their challenges to the courts for legal resolution” (Richardson 2015: 301). In later work, Richardson has described the Witnesses as something of a “partner” to the European Court of Human Rights, both working to “expand European values over the newer members states” in the Council of Europe (largely former-Soviet dominated nations) (2017: 233).
Since their founding, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been involved in numerous legal cases. They have won over 50 cases before the US Supreme Court in the areas of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and a right to equal protection under the law (Richardson 2015: 287). Richardson writes that “Jehovah’s Witnesses have filed more religion-related cases than any other religious group before the European Court of Human Rights” (2017: 232). They have filed 256 cases before the Court, as of May 2017, of which they have won 35 cases outright, and have reached “friendly settlement” in another 26 (2017: 234). Richardson states that the majority of these victories have been concerned with conscientious objection but they also involve “issues of registration, taxation, censorship of materials, freedom of expression, child custody, deportation, confidentiality of medical records, neutrality of the State, and meeting disruptions” (Richardson 2015: 299). They have 103 cases pending before the court (again as of May 2017) (Richardson 2017: 234).
Historically Jehovah’s Witnesses have fought cases over their refusal to salute the flag and refusal of military involvement, with success in lands as diverse as the United States, India and the Philippines. In the UK, the ‘Walsh Trial’ of 1953-5 was a test case that the Jehovah’s Witnesses brought to challenge conscription. Douglas Walsh, a Scottish elder, presented the argument that elders and ministerial servants were ministers and as such should be exempt from conscription in line with other religious traditions. The argument was not accepted however with the judge ruling that ministers should have a “distinctively spiritual rather than merely organisational role within the congregation, and must be set apart in some way, with special scholastic attainment” (Chryssides 2016: 121).
Jehovah’s Witnesses still challenge governments world-wide to honour their religious rights/religious freedom, and currently have hundreds of court cases running, ranging from local courts to the European Court of Human Rights, the outcome of which will either broaden or restrict the religious freedom of all citizens of the respective country, not just the religious freedom of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are, in 2018, imprisoned in seven countries worldwide because of their faith: Eritrea; Kazakhstan; Russia; Singapore; South Korea; Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Recent court cases have been fought in Russia and Kazakhstan. In January 2017 in Kazakhstan, Jehovah’s Witness, Teymur Akhmedov, was arrested for discussing his faith with seven young men who were National Security Committee (KNB) secret police informers posing as students. He was charged with illegal religious activity, convicted in May 2017  and sentenced to five years in prison. An appeal was rejected in December 2017. In April 2017, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were an ‘extremist’ religious group, defining this as a group which teaches that its theology is the only way to salvation. The Supreme Court liquidated the Witnesses’ legal entities, banned their activities and confiscated their property. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have reported increasing hostility in Russia, including verbal attacks on school children, physical attacks on adult members, disruption of religious services and arson. An appellate court has upheld a ban of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bible, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, in the Russian language as an ‘extremist’ publication and has ruled that the contract on their headquarters near St Petersburg is invalid (the property is owned by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania) and the property can be seized.