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Norway: Change in Church/State Relations

(June 6, 2012) Norway no longer has a state religion. Due to a constitutional change approved by the Storting (Parliament), there is now a separation between church and state. According to Trude Evenshaug, Head of Communications of the National Church Council, “[t]he new law is a symbol of principal equality for all faiths.” (The Government and Norwegian State Church to Be Separated, THE NORWAY POST (May 18, 2012).) She added that now the church will be appointing bishops and pastors itself and have more independence from Parliament. (Id.)

The move to secularize the state was welcomed by almost all members of the Parliament and ends a 198-year relationship between the government and the religious institution. (Norway Separates Church, State After 198 Years, WND FAITH (May 25, 2012).) The vote was first announced by Parliament on May 15, and the change was official as of the second vote on May 21. (Id. & Sean Fraser, Norway Abolishes State-Sponsored Churchof Norway, DIGITAL JOURNAL (May 15, 2012).) Svein Harberg, speaking for the parliamentary Church, Education, and Research Committee, called the change “historic both for the Norwegian Church and for the politicians in Parliament.” (Fraser, supra.) Although 79% of Norwegians are members of the national church, religion is important in the daily lives of only about 20%, according to a report in Digital Journal. (Id.)

The Constitution of May 17, 1814, had stated that Norwegians have the right to free exercise of religion but that “[t]he Evangelical-Lutheran religion shall remain the official religion of the State. The inhabitants professing it are bound to bring up their children in the same.” (The Constitution – Complete Text, art. 2, STORTINGET (last updated Feb. 23, 2012).)

The Constitution did contain requirements that the King and more than half the Members of Parliament belong to the Church of Norway (Constitution, arts. 4 & 12, id.). These provisions will be changed, but the national church will still be supported by the government, on an equal footing with other religious communities in the country.

The change stems from an agreement first worked out in 2008. (The Government and Norwegian State Church to Be Separated, supra.) According to the Church of Norway website, the reform involved seven sections of the Constitution and was immediately effective. (Historiske endringer i Grunnloven, Church of Norway website [based on machine translation] (last visited June 4, 2012).)