A Finnish court found them not guilty of homophobic hate speech. It does not mean that religious liberty justifies everything. But it means that not every religious-based criticism of certain lifestyles is hate speech.
by Massimo Introvigne
The criminal trial against Finnish MP (and former Minister of Interior) Päivi Räsänen and Lutheran Bishop Juhana Pohjola concluded last week, perhaps unexpectedly, with a total success of the defendants. Not only were they declared not guilty of all charges, but the prosecution was also ordered to contribute more than 60,000 euros towards their legal costs.
Bitter Winter had presented the case when the trial started in January. Räsänen was accused of hate speech, a crime that may lead to a jail penalty in Finland, although prosecutors were only seeking a heavy fine in her case. According to the prosecutors, Räsänen showed intolerance of the LGBT community in three separate occasions: in a radio interview, in a booklet (published by Bishop Pohjola’s publishing house), and in a tweet. Räsänen quoted inter alia the Biblical text of Romans 1:27, where we read that “men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” She also called homosexual acts “sinful” and the results of a “negative developmental disorder.”
Many in Finland and internationally saw the trial as one where secular Finnish prosecutors tried to criminalize Paul the Apostle and the Bible. I proposed in Bitter Winter a complementary view, noting that Pohjola represents the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (ELMDC), a splinter group that in 2013 left the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELCF) accusing the latter of being too liberal. The ELCF is still officially recognized as the national church, together with the much smaller Orthodox Church of Finland, and is traditionally associated with Finnish national identity. I suggested that, while the position of conservatives siding with Räsänen and Pohjola was obvious, liberals that argued they should be convicted in order to protect LGBT rights might inadvertently support a defense of the monopoly of the ELCF against a splinter denominations whose bishops had been publicly defrocked and called by the majority church traitors of their ordination vows.
The Finnish judges concluded that “it is not for the district court to interpret biblical concepts.” They noted that not everything is permitted in the name of free speech and freedom of religion. However, “there must be an overriding social reason for interfering with and restricting freedom of expression.” If there was such a social reason in the Räsänen case, the Finnish court found that it was not “overriding.”
Räsänen and Pohjola had massive international support among conservative Christians and a larger constituency of advocates of religious liberty. The U.S.-based Alliance Defending Freedom International played a leading role in their defense in the Finnish case.
In 2011, I served as the Representative of the OSCE for combating racism, xenophobia, and intolerance and discrimination against Christians and members of other religions. Part of my portfolio was combating hate speech. Another part was protecting religious liberty of Christians. I had to deal with several thorny cases where Christians were accused of hate speech targeting the LGBT community. In some of these incidents, they had simply quoted the Bible or statements of faith such as the official “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” which (the openings of Pope Francis notwithstanding) still states that “the homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” In other cases, more frequent in Eastern Europe, Christian ministers had advocated for “action,” and even instigated what became violent riots against LGBT gatherings and Gay Pride parades.
The two kinds of incidents are obviously different. As the Finnish judges said, not everything is protected by freedom of expression and religious liberty. However, freedom of religion is so important that the notion of “religion-based hate speech” should be interpreted cautiously and restrictively. Inciting a mob to assault a Gay Pride parade, justifying the actions of such a mob with theological arguments (which is not unheard of, including among high leaders: Patriarch Kirill used opposition to Gay Pride to justify even the aggression against Ukraine), or telling secular employers that they should discriminate against their LGBT employees, are forms of hate speech that cannot be justified in the name of religious freedom. Quoting the Bible or Christian tradition to argue that homosexual acts are “disordered” or sinful is something that social majorities may find objectionable in many Western countries, but is within the rights of religionists to proclaim their own doctrines, as unpopular as they may be.
The red line that should not be crossed is the direct justification of violence and discrimination in secular activities—while, as courts in several countries have repeatedly stated, religions have a certain latitude to discriminate in their specifically religious sphere, for example by stating that homosexuals cannot marry each other in church or become priests, nuns, or bishops. Courts have observed that in these cases the homosexuals’ own religious liberty is not violated. They can always leave the Catholic Church or other churches with similar rules and join more liberal denominations, or even found new churches and religions.
The Finnish judges concluded that Räsänen and Pohjola had not crossed the red line. This is a factual issue, but when they affirmed that, as long as the red line is not crossed, criticism of lifestyles certain believers for religious reasons do not approve of is protected as free speech and a legitimate manifestation of religious liberty the Finnish judges were consistent with mainline international case law, and affirmed general principles about freedom of religion or belief.