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Position adopted in Bishops' Conference report on ordination of women promotes equality

23.9.2009

"The position on the ordination of women adopted in a report by the Bishops' Conference of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church is conducive to promoting equality, equal status and non-discrimination," notes Deputy-Ombudsman Jukka Lindstedt. In 2006 the Bishops' Conference sent copies of the report "Directing work, developing the work community and occupational safety" that it had approved to parishes and administrative bodies of the church for their information. In the report, a position is adopted on the tensions that the ordination of women has caused within the church work community.

Equality between women and men is emphasised in the report. Accordingly, the employer must allocate a pastor's work tasks equally regardless of gender. The employee, in turn, must perform all tasks that are included in his or her office. A person who rejects the idea of women in the ministry has the right to be ordained, but is required to be willing to work in cooperation with female pastors. Thus he can not refuse to perform tasks that are lawfully assigned to him to be performed together with a female pastor.

A complaint was made to the Ombudsman by a person in whose opinion the report was in conflict with freedom of religion and conscience insofar as opponents of ordination of women could be obliged through work assignments to practice a religion that did not accord with their conscience.

In his decision, Deputy-Ombudsman Lindstedt weighs up the kind of interpretation that freedom of religion and conscience must be given when what is involved is the practice of religion as a work task: does freedom of religion and conscience make it possible to refuse to perform a duty?

The Deputy-Ombudsman notes that the position adopted by the Bishops' Conference is in accordance with an established interpretation of freedom of religion and conscience. The precursor documents of the section of the Constitution dealing with freedom of religion do not support the notion that pastors would have the possibility of refusing to perform an official task on the ground that it was contrary to their conviction. This has also been the case in interpretations of the European Convention on Human Rights. Support for the interpretation can also be found in a 1989 decision by the Chancellor of Justice on ordination of women as well as in Finnish case law. The legal literature has contained stances both in favour and opposed.

The view adopted in Finnish case law has been that pastors can not perform the tasks of their office on the terms of their own religious practice, but rather in the manner that their office obliges them to. Accordingly, pastors exercise their freedom of religion and conscience when they commit themselves to the ministry, and their own theological or other views may not constitute an impediment to their performing the tasks that their ministry involves.

Deputy-Ombudsman Lindstedt notes, in summary, that equal status, equality and non-discrimination are in a key position in our legal system and the public authorities must promote their implementation. Actions that violate the fundamental rights of others or are in conflict with the legal system can not be pursued by invoking freedom of conscience. 

Additional information will be provided by Senior Legal Adviser Henrik Åström, tel. +358 (0)9 432 3347.