The report "Life Phase Rites - Religious and life stance policy challenges in Norway" (norw. pdf) is important background material for the new life-stance commission.
These subjects will always be under discussion. I don't think it is possible to put an end to that, says Minister of Culture Anniken Huitfeldt. Here with leader of the commission Sturla Stålsett and deputy leader Bente Sandvig.
Secretary General of the Church City Mission Sturla Stålsett will supervise the efforts to arrive at a more comprehensive life stance policy. Bente Sandvig (NHA) has been appointed deputy leader.
Text/photo: Even Gran
Publication date (norw. version): June 25, 2010
Today, Norwegian Minister of Culture Anniken Huitfeldt announced the long-awaited commission whose mandate is to review a more comprehensive Norwegian life stance policy.
Discussions regarding the blasphemy clause proposed by the Government and the argument pertaining to the use of hijab in the police force, have contributed to the pressure on the Government to appoint this commission.
Important background material for the commission is the STL-report "Life Phase Rites - Religious and life stance policy challenges in Norway". For a long time The Norwegian Humanist Association has called for a commission of this type.
The Government has selected an team with a high proportion of christians. The commission will be headed by Sturla Stålsett, secretary general of the Church City Mission.
In addition, the commission includes Valgerd Svarstad Haugland, Ingunn Folkestad Breistein, Oddbjørn Leirvik, Rune Skjælaaen and Margareta Tumidajewicz. All full time employed in christian organizations.
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 Faith- and Life Stance Communities).
Further commission members:
- Jan Fridtjof Bernt, Bergen (63) professor, Faculty of Law, UIB
- Ottar Grepstad, Volda (57), author and leader of The New Norwegian Cultural Center
- Lavleen Kaur, Oslo (33), scholar, Institute of Criminology and Legal Sociology, UiO
- Guri Melby, Trondheim (28) lecturer, Sør-Trøndelag University College
- Rolf Reikvam, Sørum (62) independent business consultant
- Hege Fjellheim Sarre, Karasjok (47) deputy director, The Samediggi
- Tove Strand, Oslo (64) director, Ullevål University Hospital
- Shoaib Sultan, Oslo (37) secretary general, Islamic Council Norway.
- Minorities will not be allowed to dominate the commission
NHA have issued a press release critisising the commission for a preponderance of members with a defined Christian background and the fact that no specialist on Human Rights has been included in the commission.
At today's press conference 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.
- 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.
- But, maybe, we could hope that the commission will be able to conclude on some advice to make the political principles more coherent, remarks Bente Sandvig.
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 faith 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 challenge: Be specific
What is the scope of the commission? Will the report end up with a lot of vaguely formulated good intentions or will it generate specific measures and an actual new policy?
The different subjects mentioned in the mandate are not exactly unambiguous, nevertheless indicating a certain direction. Thus, it will - more or less - be up to the commission itself to limit the discussions with a view to forming the basis for a new concrete policy.
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 faith- and life stance communities shall be allowed to perform public legal functions. This applies mainly to marriages. F.inst. The Liberal Party of Norway (Venstre) advocates that faith- and 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 faith- and life stance policy.
In addition, the commission will "estimate the extent of religion and life stance applicable in different public institutions, i.a. in relation to religious and 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 borderlines.
Moreover, the commission shall make an assessment of integration issues, and how faith- and 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 faith- and 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.
NHA: A surplus of Christians
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, 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. A representative from The Norwegian Centre for Human Rights at the UiO Faculty of Law should have been included in the commission, she claims.
Furthermore, Mile is disappointed at the Christian bias of the commission, with a preponderance of Christian members.
- Of course, Christians should be included, but not the least in the work undertaken to define the future multicultural Norway, it is very important to include the minority angle and professional expertise. This has nothing to do with church policy, but is an instance of how the State is going to relate to the multiplicity 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 policy, Kristin Mile states in a press release.