27 November 2022

Democratic Criteria and the Scope of Religious Freedom in Sweden

Dr Cavallin looks at the inevitable conflict between Jacobin majoritarian democracy and religious practice when the majority disapproves of the practice.

From The European Conservative

By Clemens Cavallin, PhD

To label one’s opponents as 'antidemocratic' may make rhetorical sense, but if the values held as sacred have no foundation besides being considered so by the majority, they will inevitably fail when significant minorities beg to differ. 

Democratic society relies for its cohesion on a value consensus that is mostly taken for granted. When this fragments, the majority needs either to argue for its worldview or rely on force and coercion. The Nordic countries, for example, developed from kingdoms with mandatory Lutheran state churches into democratic societies relying both on human rights and the waning strength of a Christian cultural heritage. In Sweden, however, massive immigration since the late 20th century has increasingly undermined the evident nature of secular Swedish values.

One arena where this has become especially palpable is in the schools. Until 1992, Sweden had a unitary school system with a few private schools, but the conservative government elected in 1991 introduced, in the spirit of freedom after the collapse of communism, the possibility of so-called ‘free schools.’ From 1997, these receive an equal level of funding to that provided to the municipal schools, while in return they had to follow the same curriculum and charge no fees. Religious minorities could, therefore, more easily start confessional schools and do so with generous government funding—although, at the same time, the money came with strings attached. 

The return of social democratic rule from 1994, with a hiatus from 2006–2014, meant that there was an increased degree of scepticism toward privatization in general and especially of its use in education, which was viewed as aggravating social inequalities. With a growing number of Muslim preschools and elementary schools, the question of foundational values also came to the surface: that some Muslim schools separated boys and girls during sport classes made the education minister declare in 2016 that the law should be changed. The obvious central value threatened was gender equality. 

Some Muslim schools were closed by the authorities. In 2021, for example, three schools lost their funding, mainly due to economic mishandling, but the principal was also running a political party in Somalia with connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, large sums of money had been paid to a company connected to a person considered by the Swedish Security Service to be a threat to national security. 

Despite there being just a handful schools with a Muslim profile in Sweden, this situation alarmed the Social Democratic-led government to the extent that in the spring of 2022, it put forward a proposed law, named Stricter Rules for Confessional Activities in School. The proposal was updated in July with an addendum that would, if passed, outlaw new religious schools, while those already in operation would graciously be allowed to continue, but not to expand. The proposed law insists on mandatory non-confessionalism for all activities in both public and ‘free’ schools. 

The new conservative Moderate Party-led government has signalled both the withdrawal of this proposed law and the urgent need for stringent measures. It is too early to judge the outcome, but the Statement of Government Policy presented in parliament on October 18, 2022, stated: “The Swedish Schools Inspectorate shall strengthen its control of schools with a confessional alignment and vigorous action will be taken against extremism and Islamism.” Moreover, the more extensive programme earlier agreed upon by the parties within the liberal-conservative coalition specifies that unannounced on-site checks will be undertaken and schools not following current rules and regulations will be closed down. 

The new minister for schools, Lotta Edholm, belongs to the Liberal Party that has taken up an even more restrictive stance toward confessionally-aligned schools than the Social Democratic former government. In June this year, the Liberal Party declared that all such schools should be closed. This stance is difficult to accept for the Christian Democratic Party, which is also part of the newly formed government. The nationalist party, the Sweden Democrats—which provides parliamentary support to the government—is more interested in specifically counteracting Muslim schools and retaining Christianity as a resource for national identity. 

Despite the changes due to the September 2022 election, it is still interesting to analyse in more detail the former government’s proposed law and the statements of the relevant commissions, especially the new so-called ‘democratic criterion’ under which the relevant government agency can close a school or deny authorization to start one if it deems someone connected to the school constitutes an ideological risk, based on, among other things, religious beliefs. This is a clear restriction of central human rights, especially religious freedom and the right of parents to choose the education for their children (article 18 and 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). It is worth noting that, in Sweden, home-schooling is no longer allowed: schools with a religious profile are, therefore, crucial for parents who want to give their children an education in harmony with their faith.

It is a sign of a general hardening of the liberal understanding of freedom that it insists on sharper formulations of moral principles necessary for gaining access to the public forum. The scope of some freedoms must shrink as the liberal consensus in Western Europe feels its way of life threatened. But this is also, as in Sweden, a concern of conservative parties, especially in relation to Islamism. 

It therefore comes as no surprise that the former Swedish government was also in the process of introducing stricter democratic criteria for religious organizations that receive state funding. There is a special agency, the Swedish Agency for Support to Faith Communities, which takes care of the funds collected through the taxation system from members of faith organizations. These funds are then paid out to the organizations, but on certain conditions, among them a democratic criterion that reads as follows: “The religious organization/parish shall contribute to, sustain and strengthen the fundamental values of society.”

What these values are or where they are to be found is not specified. This makes it difficult to argue in court. A prominent recent case is that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses that both in Norway and Sweden are at risk of losing their share of government funding. Between 2007 and 2021, in Sweden, the government denied them funding with reference to the democratic condition referenced above, but, in 2021, the government lost in court and had to pay €850,000 in damages.   

The former government wanted to introduce a stricter democratic criterion and give the Swedish Agency for Support to Faith Communities more funding (€300,000 extra) to perform the necessary checks. Further, the Swedish Agency for Youth and Civil Society was to receive additional funding (an extra €700,000) in connection with this stricter democratic criterion, as it hands out funding to small and larger organizations. It presently has a democratic values clause that specifies that not only should the organization be democratically organized, but it also must “respect the ideas of democracy, which includes equality and the prohibition against discrimination.” As this is still rather fuzzy, it specifies the values further: 

Representatives for the organization but also invited speakers must respect the equal value of all human persons and not express themselves in a way that disparages or incite against various groups (founded on gender, gender perception or identity, religion or other faiths, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability). The organizations shall not exclude people founded on gender, gender perception or identity, religion or other faiths, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or disability if there are not acceptable reasons.

In a press release last year, Amanda Lind, the former minister of culture, democracy, and sports, said that in regard to civil society,

public funding should not be given to activities that are not compatible with the foundational values of society. Now government agencies will have better possibilities to make sure that this is the case. The rule of law and a long-term perspective are important for the broad civil society. Neither undemocratic forces nor imprecise rules should stand in the way for the important role of civil society in democracy.

The proposal of the former government was related to two government committees that delivered their final reports in 2018 and 2019. The first was The Support of the State to Faith Organizations in a Multireligious Sweden. It problematizes the limiting of religious freedom but points out that this is motivated when values are violated that are especially worthy of protection. The committee specifies these values as “the equal value of all persons, the freedom and dignity of the individual, the ideas of democracy, participation and equality, and protection against discrimination, the private and family life of individuals and the rights of the child.”

The other committee, Democracy Criterion for Contributions to Civil Society, which had a broader perspective encompassing the whole of civil society, suggested changes to present laws governing youth organizations, adoption agencies, associations for national minorities, women organizations, associations for retired people, organizations within the field of criminal justice, and so on. 

The new standardized democracy criterion suggested for all government funding within civil society is as follows. 

Funding shall not be given to an organization if it or some of its spokespersons within the framework of the activities 

1. uses violence, force, or threats or in any other undue way violates foundational freedoms and rights.

2. discriminates or in other ways violates the principle of everyone’s equal value

3. justifies, promotes, or encourages actions as specified above or works against democratic governance.

To combine a restriction of confessional activities in schools with democratic criteria for the whole of civil society puts hard ideological pressure on faith communities that uphold traditional moral principles. 

One inherent problem is that the democratic values are not clearly delineated. Certain questions can be raised: what makes a value democratic and when does it cease to be so? Is there a democratic essence with a set of core values? Or are they simply—as is often written in government regulations—the foundational values of our society; that is, they are the values of the present majority. But is it then democratic to exclude minorities who do not share these majority values?

The strength and legitimacy of a democratic criterion is, of course, severely diminished if it is only the expression of the moral beliefs of the majority. If the majority changes its mind, then so do the democratic values. And if they do, then they are only mirroring the moral condition of society; these will vary between countries and regions with little possibility of reasoned arbitration. 

Somewhat surprisingly, when democratic criteria are discussed and used in Swedish government papers, the full scope of human rights are not emphasized, but instead focus on the principles of equality and non-discrimination. To impose such a democratic criterion while not emphasizing the adherence to the fullness of human rights is to lessen the importance of certain rights such as religious freedom and the right of parents to choose forms of education for their children. 

The force of a democratic criterion is primarily that it imposes a certain set of values and moral principles, for example, on Swedish civil society, considered as evidently valid. A religion is, however, not simply a cultural add-on to any set of moral principles and values: these are built into the religion. The conflict can be severe as it is between sets of non-negotiable norms and ideals. At the outset it is not clear which side should compromise, as in 18th century Britain when small Protestant groups criticized the slave trade. The majority and the government are not automatically in the right, but the minority might be—but to see this requires a set of universal principles that stand above and also judge democracies and the values decided upon by their majorities. 

It is, therefore, not enough to insist on our democratic values, when there are significant numbers of citizens who do not share them. The question of universality must be discussed, and relativism refuted. Democratic criteria will fail if the question of universality and objectivity is not dealt with and the restrictions on freedom of expression and religious freedom at least kept at a minimum. To label one’s opponents as ‘antidemocratic’ may make rhetorical sense and provide the use of force with some legitimacy, but if the values held as sacred have no foundation besides being considered so by the majority, even on a global scale, they will inevitably fail when significant minorities beg to differ. 

It is an encouraging sign that, in October 2022, the new Minister for Social Affairs, Jakob Forssmed, a Christian Democrat, announced that the conservative government was withdrawing the law proposals regarding faith organisations and civil society and that a new commission will be formed to investigate once more the question of a democracy criterion for religions and civil society. Hopefully, it will have a keener eye for human rights.

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