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Norway: State and Church Separate After 500 Years

(Feb. 3, 2017) On January 1, 2017, the Norwegian State Church (Norske statskirke) was formally and completely legally separated from the state when an amendment to the Church Act took effect. The changes made the Norwegian State Church into its own legal entity with no connection to the Norwegian state. (Lov om endringer i kirkeloven (omdanning av Den norske kirke til eget rettssubjekt m.m.) [Act on Changes to the Church Act (Regarding Reorganization of the Norwegian Church into Its Own Legal Entity)], LOV-2016-05-27-17 [Act No. 17, May 27, 2016], LOVDATA.)

This also means that the Church Council and the Bishop’s Offices, including their employees, have been shifted from being part of the Norwegian state to being part of the new legal entity “the Norwegian Church.” (Lov om Den norske kirke (kirkeloven) [Act on the Norwegian Church (the Church Act)], LOV-1996-06-07-31, as amended by LOV-2016-05-27-17.) Under the new law, Bishops are no longer appointed by the King, but instead are appointed by the Church Council.  (§ 2 Church Act.)  However, the King is still responsible for making any changes to the organization of the Church and for creation of new parishes and changes to the names of existing parishes. (Id.) Moreover, the Church will now have to apply separately for state financial support for any of its activities. (Id. § 2a.)

The move of the Norwegian State Church from being a state church to a distinct legal entity started with an amendment to the Norwegian Constitution in 2012. (Dag T. Hoelseth, Grunnlovsbestemmelse 21. mai 2012 (kirkeforliket) [Constitutional Provision 21 May 2012 (Church Settlement)], LOVDATA (May 23, 2012).)  This amendment, among other measures, removed the provision stating that Evangelical Lutheran should be the religion of the state; the  Constitution now only requires that the King acknowledge his belief in the Evangelical Lutheran religion. (Kongeriget Norges Grunnlov [Constitution of the Kingdom of Norway], LOV-1814-05-17 (as amended by FOR-2016-06-10-615), art. 4, LOVDATA.)

The legal changes to the Norwegian Church Act that entered into force on January 1, 2017, have been referred to as the “biggest change to the Church since Reformation.” (Norway Prepares for Biggest Change to Church Since Reformation, THE LOCAL (Dec. 28, 2016).)