With a slim majority of 4 to 3, the Helsinki Court of Appeals voted that the Finnish practice of allowing male Jehovah's Witnesses to avoid conscription was unjust towards other conscientious objectors, national broadcaster Yle reported.
This historic decision denounces the decades-old exemption for Jehovah's Witnesses initiated in 1987. In stark contrast to other "total objectors," who refuse both military and civilian service, Jehovah's Witnesses are uniquely not sent to prison.
The ruling came in a discrimination case brought by a man who was imprisoned in 2016 for refusing conscription service the year before. Jehovah's Witnesses cite their pacifist interpretation of the Bible as the foundation for their objection. No other groups in Finland have the same right.
Robin Harms, a senior advisor to the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman, argued that favoring Jehovah's Witnesses was an "embarrassment" for Finland.
The Finnish Union of Conscientious Objectors (AKL) welcomed the court decision by calling it "pivotal" in the process toward banning conscription altogether.
As of today, Finns are to choose between serving in the military, dedicating a longer period of time to civilian service, or a six-month prison sentence. For its practice of forced conscription, Finland has come under fire from human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights Committee.
According to the AKL, there is an annual average of 40 objectors in Finland. By contrast, about 100 Jehovah's Witnesses avoid conscription each year.
While the majority of draftees (72 percent) choose to enter military service (six months minimum), some 2,000 opt for civilian service, which lasts a minimum of 347 days. All men who end up jailed for objecting to conscription are considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.
Justice Minister Antti Häkkänen said following the verdict that the current exemptions from military service may be re-evaluated in the light of the ruling.
The Finnish Armed Forces are based on universal male conscription, with the percentage of female volunteers steadily rising in recent years. Each year, some 27,000 conscripts are trained.
While it has a standing strength of about 16,000 troops in peacetime, Finland is capable of mobilizing up to 230,000 troops and service personnel within four weeks, the largest such force in Scandinavia.
The total number of Jehova's Witnesses is estimated at about 20,000 in Finland.