Panel Makes Suggestions in Norway

OSLO, Norway - A religious panel on Thursday recommended that Norway end its 465-year-old state church system and give all religions equal footing.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Norway has been the nation's official religion since 1537. Last year 86 percent of Norway's 4.5 million people were listed as members, although only a fraction of those were active.

After four years of study, a panel from the government-backed Norwegian Church Council said the time had come to separate the church and state.

"In principle, all religions should be treated equally," said Trond Bakkevig, the Lutheran theologian who led the 17-member commission.

It would take a constitutional amendment to end the state church system. Such amendments must be approved by two consecutive parliaments, so the earliest possible date for the change would be after 2005 national elections.

It was not clear when and if an amendment would be presented.

The panel said the financing and decision-making of all religious groups should be done by congregation members. It said that would give church's greater freedom.

In recent years, state church leaders and the government have frequently been at odds, especially over hirings. Since the government employs state church staff and clergy, it has the final say over who fills the posts.

In 2000, the government defied the church's guidelines and allowed the appointment of an openly gay clergyman in Oslo.

Under the current system, other religions and belief groups, such as the atheist Human Ethic Union, are free to practice their beliefs and can seek government funding based on the size of their membership.