Freedom of religion and data protection: the ECHR ruling in Jehovah’s Witnesses v. Finland

Freedom of religion is one of the fundamental rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 9 of the Convention guarantees the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

However, this exercise of religious freedom can sometimes conflict with other rights and interests, such as the right to privacy or the protection of personal data. It is in this context that the European Court of Human Rights examined the case of ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses v. Finland’ of 09 April 2023.

This case concerns the obligation for members of Jehovah’s Witnesses to obtain the consent of individuals during their door-to-door preaching in order to collect their personal data. In 2000, the Finnish Data Protection Ombudsman issued an opinion stating that personal data could only be collected during door-to-door visits by Jehovah’s Witnesses with the consent of the individuals concerned. In 2011, a complaint was lodged with the Data Protection Ombudsman alleging that the notes taken by Jehovah’s Witnesses constituted a ‘personal data file’. The ombudsman ruled that Jehovah’s Witnesses were prohibited from collecting data without the unambiguous consent of the person concerned.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses community and two of its members took the case to the Finnish courts, seeking to overturn the ombudsman’s decision. The Helsinki Administrative Court partially accepted the appeal of the community of applicants, annulling the decision. It held, among other things, that the applicants’ community was not the “controller” of the data in question, but that the explicit consent of the data subject was nevertheless required for the collection and processing of this data.

In 2018, the Finnish Supreme Administrative Court overturned the decision of the Helsinki Administrative Court. It ruled that the collection of data by Jehovah’s Witnesses could not be considered as private personal data for personal use. Although door-to-door preaching was also part of the personal religious activity of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it was organised, coordinated and encouraged by the applicants’ community. Consequently, the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses was the ‘responsible’ party for the data, and therefore liable.

In Kokkinakis v. Greece, the Court held that freedom of religion protects the right to express one’s religion or belief individually, including through collective practice. The Court also stated that freedom of religion includes the right to change one’s religion or belief.

Similarly, in Hasan and Eylem Zengin v. Turkey, the Court held that freedom of religion must be interpreted broadly, as it concerns matters that touch on the individual conscience and reflect the way in which a person perceives and defines him or herself.

In the present case, the Court held that the personal data protection requirements imposed on Jehovah’s Witnesses did not infringe their freedom of religion. The national authorities correctly balanced the interests of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community with individual rights in relation to personal data, considering that obtaining consent was necessary.

In conclusion, the Jehovah’s Witnesses v. Finland judgment of the European Court of Human Rights is an important reminder of the protection of religious freedom in the European Union. The Court confirmed that freedom of religion must be interpreted broadly, but that this does not mean that religious practices are exempt from regulation and protection of individual rights. National authorities have a responsibility to ensure that religious practices are compatible with legal standards and human rights.

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