The position of the board of the Lithuanian Society for the Study of Religions regarding refusal to grant a status of state recognized religious association to Romuva

To the President of the Republic of Lithuania, Gitanas Nausėda
To the Speaker of the Seimas, Viktoras Pranckietis
To members of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania
To the Prime Minister of the Republic of Lithuania, Saulius Skvernelis
To the Minister of Justice, Elvinas Jankevičius

27 September 2019

In response to the decision of the Seimas (Parliament) of the Republic of Lithuania to not grant the status of state recognized religious association to the Religious Association of Ancient Balts Romuva (hereafter Romuva) on 27 June 2019, the Lithuanian Society for the Study of Religions hereby expresses its grave concerns regarding compliance of this decision to the main principles of the rule of law and democracy and the upholding of human rights, as well as the implementation of the principle of separation of state and religion.

On 29 December 2017, the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Lithuania prepared a conclusion stating that Romuva met the requirements for religious associations seeking a state recognition according to the Law on Religious Communities and Associations of the Republic of Lithuania (4 October 1995, No. I-1057; the consolidated version in force since 5 January 2010). The conclusion provided by the Ministry of Justice was based on an analysis of the requirements of relevant laws, academic research on Romuva and modern paganism in general, and the results of a representative survey of public opinion commissioned by the Ministry of Justice. However, in defiance of opinions expressed by qualified academic researchers in religious studies, scholars working in relevant fields and other specialists, a decision unfavourable to the association was made in the Seimas.

Recognizing that that there is a legitimate state interest in citizens of various worldviews being allowed to fully participate in public life and the decision making that informs it, events before and during the debates on the issue of granting state recognition to Romuva clearly reveal that the decision of members of the Seimas contradicted important legal principles of Lithuania and showed fundamental disrespect for human rights in Lithuania. Paradoxically, the greatest opposition to a positive decision regarding granting the status of a state recognized religious association to Romuva was shown by former and present members of the Committee of Human Rights of the Seimas. The United Nations encourages application of a complex concept of human rights, but the decision suggests that an understanding that the right to religious freedom belongs to the privileged few only is coming back in Lithuania. There seems good reason to be concerned that the decision of the Seimas discriminates against Romuva as religious association and against its members as Lithuanian citizens exercising their rights, and that to a large degree, this is a result of the actions of various social groups that provided highly biased arguments against Romuva that may have used seemingly academic and legal terminology but were not based in actual religious studies scholarship.

One particular document that seems to have had a significant impact on the Seimas decision that discriminates against Romuva was an email of the president of the Lithuanian Bishops’ conference, archbishop Gintaras Grušas, sent on 27 June 2019 to members of the Seimas. The email provided professedly academic and legal arguments backing refusal to make a decision favourable to Romuva. After familiarization with the text, we as researchers of religion note the following points in relation to certain specific points of the archbishop’s text:

  1. The choice of name for a religious association is a matter of decision for the religious association and is not open to challenge by others. A name does not necessarily refer to facts only, it can likewise designate aspirations. Romuva is understood by its members as a revived form of ancient, ancestral religion (the faith of the “Balts” in the broader sense), and in this regard its name is clear and not misleading both in its legal and general meanings. In addition, it should be noted that Romuva’s explicit aspiration to recreate the faith of the ancient Balts is irrelevant in regard of granting of a status of a state recognized religious association. According to the Law on Religious Communities and Associations, the state recognizes not historical religions, but religions enjoying backing by society and having instruction and rites that are not contrary to laws and morality.
  2. In his letter, the archbishop claims that the religious association Romuva has not existed in Lithuania for the period of 25 years required by the law. This argument is not warranted, because before adoption of the law in 1995 there was no legal concept of a religious association in Lithuania at all. However, the law established that the state can recognize religious associations that legally operated after 1918. It should be also noted that the Vilnius Romuva community which was registered in 1992 was one of the founding members of the Religious Association of the Ancient Balts Romuva and today remains part of this association. Thus, the requirement of the period of 25 years established in the law has been completely met.
  3. Archbishop Grušas makes unfounded claims that it is impossible to assess whether the instruction and rites of the Romuva association are not contrary to laws and public morality because the faith of Romuva is underdeveloped in respect of its doctrine. The main principles of the faith of Romuva are set out in the statutes of the religious association, and the Romuva faith has been practiced in public for more than one decade. Thus, the state has had more than enough time to establish the relationship of instruction and rites of this faith with the law and universally accepted moral norms, completely independent of Romuva not having at this point a thoroughly developed comprehensive theology. Grušas’ reasoning could be seen as an instance of an attempt to establish the structure of one religion as a norm and to impose it as a standard to be used in assessing other religions.
  4. It is not clear, how archbishop Grušas would like to measure backing by society for specific religious associations. He refers to “wider research” that he does not specify. In public opinion surveys, Jewish and Muslim communities that are considered “traditional” in Lithuania are assessed manifestly more negative terms than is Romuva. Furthermore, these religious communities (Karaites can be included among them in this respect) are also smaller by their membership. If Romuva is not considered to be sufficiently supported by Lithuanian society, a question can be raised: which of the currently state recognized religious associations actually has this backing?

We regret such unfounded arguments were provided to members of the Seimas on the same day when they had to make a decision regarding recognition of Romuva. It would seem that providing these arguments in this way was an effort to exert influence by the authority of the Catholic Church and to avoid any realistic possibility of careful discussion and proper assessment of the content of these arguments.

Similar arguments were set forth in a letter dated 28 June 2019, signed by a general secretary of the Lithuanian Bishops’ Conference, priest Kęstutis Smilgevičius and addressed to the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Lithuania. The document questions the conclusion of the Ministry of Justice supporting recognition claiming it is non-scholarly, biased and partial. In the opinion of the Lithuanian Society for the Study of Religions, which has among its members eminent scholars involved in serious research on contemporary religiosity in general and on contemporary paganism and Romuva in particular, the nature of the text from the Ministry of Justice does not allow discussion of many issues related to terminology and its interpretations, but the data and arguments provided correspond with contemporary academic understanding of this religious community. Furthermore, the conclusion certainly cannot be described as partial or apologetic: for example, contrary to beliefs of many members of Romuva, the document describes it as a new religious movement that developed in the modern times.

Members of the Lithuanian Society for the Study of Religions are surprised by the tone of the mentioned letter, in which the authors claim to appeal to academic objectivity, but in fact are only applying this as a veil to conceal and justify the effort of one religious group to use its powerful position to assert a seemingly “scholarly,” but in fact highly biased assessment of the conclusion prepared by the experts of the Ministry of Justice. Furthermore, it should be noted that the Lithuanian Bishops’ conference did not seek advice of any of scholars belonging to the Society regarding the assessment of a status of Romuva; this text was prepared by members of the Catholic Church exclusively. The letter ignores concepts of religiosity dominating in the academic community and arguments based on academic research, and instead invokes concepts and ideas based on exclusively Christian perspective, in this way incorrectly applying legal principles, preventing use of legitimate rights established in law, distributing conspiracy theories and inciting intolerance and tension in the society. This raises the greatest concern of the Lithuanian Society for the Study of Religions as a scholarly organization dedicated to uniting Lithuanian and foreign academics working in various fields.

Refusal to grant state recognition to the Religious Association of Ancient Balts Romuva is important not only as a case of violation of the human rights of the members of a specific religious community. It also is a basis for growth of distrust of citizens in legal principles of the state, as well as damaging citizens’ confidence in the fulfilment of legitimate expectations and respect of human rights based on these principles. Therefore, we recommend:

  1. to judge religions from the scholarly rather than the confessional perspective and to adhere to principles of objectivity and impartiality;
  2. to adhere to principles of the rule of law and democracy, respect for human rights and separation of state and religion and to take into account conclusions provided by experts when making decisions related to religious associations and communities;
  3. to assess if the period of 25 years currently applied to an association seeking the status of state recognized religious community under the Law on Religious Communities and Associations is optimal or even necessary in order to establish whether the instruction and rites of a particular religious community are not contrary to laws and morality. From the academic perspective, it seems possible to do this in a shorter period.

Members of the board of the Lithuanian Society for the Study of Religions:
assoc. prof. dr. Rasa Pranskevičiūtė-Amoson
dr. Eglė Aleknaitė
prof. dr. Milda Ališauskienė
prof. hab. dr. (hp) Audrius Beinorius
assoc. prof. dr. Aušrelė Pažėraitė

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