Farmer Joop van Ooijen is a Christian and he wants to shout that information from the rooftops. The way he’s chosen is not verbal but with white-painted roof tiles, which contrast sharply with the other grey tiles in the countryside. The Municipal Executive (B&W) of Giessenlanden was not happy about it and called the farmer to order with a reference to the Housing Act. Strong reactions followed, but according to Professor of Religion and Law Fokko Oldenhuis, they have the law on their side.
B&W support their ban with the welstandsnota, a policy document on planning regulations for the location and external appearance of buildings, passed by the municipal council. This type of policy document is designed to allow B&W to act against the owners of property who let it go to rack and ruin or significantly transgress what is considered customary. It means, for example, that the council can act against a property owner who paints his house in ghastly colours. It also enables them to limit excessive advertising.
The buildings aesthetics committee took the standpoint that the white roof tiles were too extreme a contrast with the environment, which otherwise only has ‘matt ceramic roof tiles in their natural, traditional colours (dark shades of grey)’. The farmer thus knew that he was acting unusually and that the least he could expect was a reaction from the municipality.
In the subsequent legal fencing match, Van Ooijen took refuge behind the classic civil rights claim. After all, it’s common knowledge that municipal authorities cannot limit those rights with impunity – these days the outcome of something like that is not all that predictable anymore, and that’s also the case in this lingering issue.
The Council of State upheld the municipality’s decision and ordered the white-painted tiles to be changed for tiles with a greyer hue within six weeks. The decision resulted in strong reactions – both positive and negative – and editorial comments in the national newspapers.
The decision reignited the dormant conflict about discrimination against Judeo-Christian values in comparison with Islamic values – why should ‘Jesus saves’ have to vanish from the roof when just a little further up there are mosques disfiguring the skyline and burqas have to be tolerated on the street. Eighty years after its foundation, the SGP (the orthodox Protestant political party) is being forced to include women on its list, against its Christian principles, and a Christian train conductor has had to remove his cross when at work, while at the same time a headscarf in the colours of the local transport company is permitted.
Professor of Religion and Law Fokko Oldenhuis, however, thinks that the decision of the Council of State is balanced and crystal clear and has nothing to do with conscious discrimination against Judeo-Christian values. Society today is heavily over-legalized, he says. In a multi-religious society, this means that citizens, and that includes religious citizens – both Christians and Muslims – appeal to their civil rights very quickly, particularly their freedom of religion.
Oldenhuis: ‘When they do that they are losing sight of the original intention of that civil right – to ensure that every citizen can choose his or her religion in complete freedom, without any interference by the state. Seen from that basic premise, absolutely no obstacles are being put in the way of Van Ooijen with regard to his choice of religion.’
As soon as someone becomes active in the public domain in a certain way, his behaviour is measured by different standards. When someone drives a car, for instance, society demands that he wear a seatbelt, regardless of whether or not the driver feels that he is in God’s hands on the public highway. Wearing a helmet when riding a moped is compulsory, even in Staphorst and Spakenburg and even if you are wearing traditional dress. In the same way, according to Oldenhuis, the owner of a farm will clash with the Housing Act if he has the stones speak too loudly.
The Council of State explicitly stated that the case in question had nothing to do with the content of the message. The fact that other inhabitants were not bothered did not play a decisive role either, according to the Council. The issue is the policy created by the municipal authorities themselves. A message in roof tiles with the text ‘Stop Islam’ would meet with the same fate. In this case there is no question of one religion being discriminated against in favour of another.
However, the context of the environment is partly determinative. ‘Jesus saves’ as a neon advert in the heart of Amsterdam or a neon spotlight in the centre of Groningen flashing ‘God is looking for you’ could in Oldenhuis’s opinion hold their own against an in-your-face billboard displaying ladies in crop tops advertising breast augmentation.
Oldenhuis acknowledges that it is possible to dispute the actual decision of the buildings aesthetics committee. ‘If he had chosen roof tiles in a more subtle shade there would never have been a problem. Even in his role as the owner of premises, if the farmer had been prepared to tone down the message a bit, the religious message would not have had to disappear.’
In the meantime, Van Ooijen has stated that he’s taking his case to the European Court, but Oldenhuis thinks that he wouldn’t stand a chance. ‘When the buses are crowded, you have to make more allowances than usual. Within the public domain, it’s become a lot more crowded in the Netherlands from a religious point of view. We should be prepared to soften the sharp edges of our personal views once we move into the public domain. That way there’ll be no differences created between Jews, Christians, Muslims or atheists.
Fokko T. Oldenhuis (Delfzijl, 1950) has been professor by special appointment in Religion and Law at the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies since 2005. He is a member of the department of Private Law and Notary Law of the University of Groningen. In addition, since 1993 he has been deputy justice for the Court of Appeal in Arnhem. Alongside publications about religion and law, Oldenhuis has written many works on liability law and tenancy law.
Contact: Prof. F.T.Oldenhuis
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