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Lisätty: 2007-10-07

Status of the Finnish State Church in 2007

This article consists of two parts. The first part explains the state church status of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church and its privileges that other ideological organizations lack. This article will argue for the separation of state and church in Finland. The second part covers a web site,, created by The Freethinkers of Tampere in 2003 to assist people in resigning from the state church to suppress its power. The web site has noticeably increased resignation rates in Finland due to marketing, the general attitude towards the church, and the ease of resigning through the web site.

Approximately 82% of the Finns belong to the Evangelic Lutheran Church. The term state church will henceforth refer to it. There are actually two state churches in Finland, but the other state church, the Finnish Orthodox Church, is not covered since only 1.1% of the population belong to it.

This article is a continuation for an article published in Slashdot last year. The purpose of this article is to convey the status of one of the last state churches in Western countries for a non-Finnish audience.

1. Privileges of the State Church

The 76th Article of the Finnish Constitution explicitly names the Evangelical Lutheran Church as being directed by the Church Laws. The Evangelical Lutheran Church is the only church named in the constitution. The Church Law gives it special privileges, which we will list here:
  • The state church taxes its members through state officials with an income tax:
    • Church members pay income tax of 1.0% to 2.25% (depending on municipality) for the church
    • State tax officials will collect the membership tax and give it to the church
  • All companies have to pay taxes to the state church
    • The state church has a law-protected monopoly in burial of the dead
    • The church must bury everyone (a church member or not) using the tax money
  • The state church avoids 4% tax when selling real estate
    • This privilege is not unique to the state church, but applies to all religious organizations that are officially registered
    • Other ideological organizations do not have this privilege
    • As an exception, not all religious organizations get this benefit, as some are not registered as religious organizations, and some religious organizations were denied the right to register themselves (Wiccans, for example)
Whether or not these benefits seem reasonable or not, they are, at the very least, unfair towards other ideological organizations, whether they are religious or not. Also, it can be argued that the money transferred to the church may cause some small (but direct) financial harm for the society. But in particular, it may alienate some people because the law takes an ideological side in favor of one particular faith.

Ironically, this could be viewed as a result of some sort of democracy, as most people in the past really subscribed to the idea of state church. For these reasons, separation of state and church should be made explicit in the Law. The Freethinkers of Tampere (the authors of this article) pursue this goal by encouraging people to resign from the state church. It is likely that the state church will see a significant membership drop if these privileges are dropped, since members will then directly see the tax it places on its members.

1.1 Freedom of Speech Denied: Public Degrading of Religions Is Criminalized

The Finnish law still has sections that criminalize degrading a god or that which is held sacred by some religious organization. Approximately once a year, someone is sentenced for breaking this law. In the year 2000 a rock band was sentenced for degrading a religion. The band was sentenced for its performance of shouting "Fuck Christ" and breaking a wooden cross on the stage. The maximum sentence for sacrilege is 6 months in prison.

The Union of Freethinkers were considered for prosecution in 2006 for publishing a comic satire of Christianity in the web. In the end, the state decided not to prosecute.

2. Critique on The Evangelical Lutheran Church

As the Evangelic Lutheran church holds the position of the state church, it should show example by conforming to established laws. However, in 2007 there have been two cases giving dubious publicity to the church.

2.1 Male Priests of the Church Refuse to Work with Female Priests

The status of female priesthood was thought to be solved in 1980s when it was allowed by the church. The debate was largely over after 1990s. Women were commonly accepted as equal priests, but not all agreed. In March 2007, a male priest at Hyvinkää refused to perform a mass with a female priest (source). This yielded an official criminal investigation as Finnish law prohibits gender-based discrimination. After this, 90 priests signed a petition in favor of gender-based discrimination.

The debate is dividing the church internally. The highest governing body of the church needs to take a side between the liberals and the conservatives, because the press and members are demanding that they do so. Taking the liberal side means losing the support of the conservative side (who are the core supporters of the church). The official position of the church is currently that of the liberal side (thus rejecting gender-based discrimination). Only a small portion of priests refuse to work with female priests, and the large majority of church members sees this small portion very negatively. However, the approval of gender-based discrimination is still strong among active members of the church.

From a political point of view, the liberal policy is winning because a conservative policy would accelerate membership loss of the church, which is already high. Each appearance of the debate in the press causes some members to resign, and several thousand have already left the church (Finland's population is 5.3 million).

Whether or not a female priesthood is compatible with the teachings of the church has not been a large issue with the majority of members. The debate largely centers around what is considered the moral thing to do (social equality), the future of the church, and adherence to laws.

2.2 Church Considers Itself Being Above The Law

In 2007 Finnish Ecumenic community published a guide instructing that church members should protect refugees, even if their asylum has been denied (i.e. they have to leave the country). The church thinks its ethics are reason enough to resist state officials, thus undermining democracy and the rule of law. The story became relevant with an Iranian Kurd seeking asylum in Finland. The story is often covered in newspapers; see stories here and here.

3. Membership Loss of the Church

The state church has lost members rapidly since year 2000. In the year 2000, 85% of the people were members of the state church, and in the end of year 2006, the same number was 82.4%. That is, 2.6% of the Finnish people left the church in six years. There are 5.3 million people in Finland. The following table shows the decrease in church membership from 2000 to 2006:

Year Resignees Joinees Change Proportion of people in church (%)
2000 13 600 11 200 -2 400 85
2001 14 100 10 600 -3 500 84.8
2002 16 077 10 377 -5 700 84.6
2003 26 857 10 023 -16 834 84.1
2004 27 009 9 365 -17 644 83.6
2005 33 043 9 559 -23 484 83.1
2006 34 952 10 116 -24 836 82.4


The Freethinkers of Tampere created a web site, ("eroa kirkosta" roughly translates to "resign from the church"), in 2003 to assist people to resign from the state church to further the goal of separation of state and church, and to promote a secular society. The web site became a success; in 2006 79% of all resignations went through the site. The same figure was 69% in 2005, and 39% in 2004.

4.1 Easy resignation

Easy resignation through the web site has been a key factor in our success. Resigning through the web site only requires filling a short personal information form, after which a local city council will receive an email about the resignation. This was made possible by a law passed in 2004 regarding email exchange with state officials. As a consequence, it was possible (with some citizen activism) to create an auxiliary route for resignees. The state has an official web service for people to resign, but only a fraction of people use it due to insufficient visibility and bad usability. For the Freethinkers, this was an opportunity to present themselves in the media.

5. Resignation rates

The following table shows resignations through the site compared to all resignations in the state (5.3 million people in Finland):

YearResignees through the siteAll resigneesProportion of the site %
2003ca. 1 00026 857n. 3.7%
200410 45927 00938.7%
200522 77033 04368.9%
200627 67234 95279.2%

The following figure shows resignations through the web site in 2004 - 2007:

Monthly resignations through in 2004 - 2007

6. Demographic Stereotypes of Resignees

Interestingly, 58% of the resignees are men, and 61% of resignees are under 30 years old, counting year 2007 only. Men and younger people seem to be more secular than women and older people, respectively.

7. Reasons of Resignation

Based on feedback to the web site, the most common reasons for resignation are:
  • Atheism, agnosticism and weak belief
  • Avoiding taxes (1.5% on average from total income)
  • Easy to resign through the web site (would have resigned earlier if it didn't mean a visit to a bureau)

8. Conclusions

The membership loss and the privileges of the state church have given the Freethinkers an opportunity to present themselves in the media, thus increasing resignation rates in Finland to drive for the separation of state and church. The membership loss is not slowing down in the foreseeable future, but is instead accelerating all the time. Furthermore, unlawful practices and the seemingly overprivileged status of the church has put it into the test of public criticism.

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