Norwegian Humanists welcome Government’s Life Stance Policy Commission

  • post Type / General news
  • Date / 1 September 2010

Norwegian Minister of Culture Anniken Huitfeldt has
responded to a long-standing request of the Norwegian Humanist Association (NHA)
by appointing a commission whose mandate is to develop a more comprehensive
Norwegian life stance policy. But even though the commission has a Humanist
deputy leader, the NHA has criticized it for being dominated by Christians and
lacking any human rights experts.

Life Stance Council
From left to right: Sturla Stålsett (Commission leader), Anniken
Huitfeldt (Minister of Culture) and Bente Sandvig (Commission deputy leader)

The life stance policy commission will explore issues where public policy
intersects with personal convictions and the practices of belief groups,
including the non-religious life stance of Humanism as well as religious life
stances, such as Christianity and Islam. Discussions regarding the blasphemy
law proposed by the Norwegian government and the argument about the use of the
Muslim head scarf (hijab) in the
police force, have contributed to the pressure on the government to appoint
this commission. 

The commission will be headed by Sturla Stålsett, secretary general of the
Church City Mission. Deputy leader of the commission will be Bente Sandvig from
the Norwegian Humanist Association (NHA). She is also the head of STL (Liaison
Council for Life Stance Communities). Out of the 14 other Commission Members,
five are employed full-time in Christian organizations, one represents a Muslim
organization, and the rest are academics, legal scholars, service providers and
business consultants.

Minister denies need for balance

At the press conference announcing the commission, Minister of Culture
Anniken Huitfeldt emphasised that there has been no intention to establish a
balanced commission, neither in relation to politics nor regarding life stance.

“Our objective has not been to create an even balance of representatives in
the commission. The members have been appointed based on competence and
knowledge,” Huitfeldt says.

Ms. Huitfeldt replied to several other questions from the Norwegian Humanist

– The Norwegian Humanist Association maintains that too many Christians
have been included in the commission, thus generating a Christian bias. What is
your reaction to this?

“It is important to stress that this is not intended to be a minority
commission. Minorities are not going to define our common arenas. The structure
must, of course, reflect this fact. On the other hand, it is important that the
majority is conscious of the needs of the minorities. Actually, it is these
borderlines that the commission will be trying to define.”

– This is, obviously, a case of how the state is obliged to act in
relation to life stance diversities. Human rights constitute a very important
element. Have you considered the appointment of a human rights specialist to
the commission?

“We have not explicitly looked for a human rights specialist. We have
emphasised an open structure, and we have got hold of the commission members we
wanted. Furthermore, the commission is free to acquire necessary additional
know-how, including human rights competence.”

– Do you hope that the commission will succeed in defining life stance
policy guidelines, or do you think that we shall continue to live with
recurrent discussions on hijab in the police force, blasphemy clauses etc.?

“These topics will always be open for discussion, and we have no intention
of putting these subjects to rest”, says the minister. 

Bente Sandvig, the commission’s Humanist deputy leader, added: “But, maybe,
we could hope that the commission will be able to conclude on some advice to
make the political principles more coherent.”

The minister, commission leader Sturla Stålsett and deputy leader Bente
Sandvig all stress that they are optimists as to the positive conclusions of
the commission.

“I am looking forward to this challenge. I think that this is important
work, and now is the right time to do it. Even if belief and life stance are
personal matters, these subjects also have a public angle. These are the
borderlines we will be trying to define. We intend to succeed. We have a
comprehensive structure in the commission,” Stålsett states.

The Mandate

In dialogue with the faith- and life stance communities of the country, the
commission shall:

  • Consider possibilities to
    monitor the public contribution provisions, together with a definition of
    terms and conditions applicable to economic support provided by the State.
  • Discuss whether the current
    system of life stance community registration should be maintained, and in
    that case consider whether the division between registered and
    unregistered life stance communities should be continued.
  • Take into account on what
    level life stance communities shall be allowed to perform public legal
    functions. This applies mainly to marriages. For example, the Liberal
    Party of Norway (Venstre) advocates that life stance communities should
    only be given the right to arrange the actual ceremony, whereas the
    legally binding marriage formalities should be undertaken by a public,
    nondenominational body.

According to the mandate, the existing financial structure pertaining to the
Norwegian Church shall remain unchanged, together
with the intention to implement an actively supportive life stance policy.

In addition, the commission will “estimate the extent of life stance issues applicable
in different public institutions, i.e. in relation to life stance services,
access to prayer and ceremony locations, special demand for food, clothing,
etc.” This is a very wide area that requires the commission itself to define

Moreover, the commission shall make an assessment of integration issues, and
how life stance policy might influence these questions. According to the
mandate, the commission shall also “review the need for coordination of legal
rules and regulations in different public areas in order to implement a more
comprehensive life stance policy”. Yet again, this is a wide, unspecified area,
and the challenge is to define limits. Blasphemy clauses and hijab discussions are a part of this
subject matter, even if this has not been explicitly mentioned in the mandate.

The commission will also look past national borders and chart how similar
problems are approached in other countries, together with an evaluation of the
financial aspects of the proposed measures.

The commission will submit a detailed report within the end of 2012, well in
advance of the second parliamentary debate on the Norwegian state-church system
in the national assembly (Stortinget)
in 2014.

The Humanist Response

The Norwegian Humanist Association (NHA) is content that the commission has
been established, and that NHA’s Bente Sandvig has been appointed deputy
leader. For several years NHA has made a case for a report like this.
Furthermore, NHA is satisfied that the mandate is adequately defined.

Nevertheless, NHA secretary general Kristin Mile has asked for human rights
expertise: “Apparently, the political community is not aware of the fact that
we – here in Norway
– benefit from competent human rights experts who could have contributed
positively to the work undertaken by the commission.”

Furthermore, Mile is disappointed at the Christian bias of the commission,
with a preponderance of Christian members. “Of course, Christians should be
included, but in the work undertaken to define the future multicultural Norway, to give
one example, it is very important to include the minority angle and
professional expertise,” said Mile. “This has nothing to do with church policy,
but is an instance of how the state is going to relate to the diversity of Norway. The
political community and the Christian majority have each played a role to delay
the work of implementing true equality in the life stance areas, from a
viewpoint that what is preferable to the majority is good enough as a general

–Even Gran

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