Finnish court: Expressing Biblical beliefs is not hate speech
A Finnish politician and a Lutheran bishop defend their right to share Christian beliefs about marriage and sexuality
For nearly three years, Finnish politician Päivi Räsänen and Lutheran Bishop Juhana Pohjola have defended themselves against so-called “hate speech” charges for expressing their Biblical beliefs about homosexuality. They endured 10 hours of police interrogation and a two-day trial that attracted worldwide attention as a public prosecutor examined core Christian tenets.
On Wednesday, a three-judge panel for the Helsinki District Court unanimously dismissed four criminal charges against Räsänen, a longtime member of Finnish Parliament and former interior minister, and Pohjola, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland. The charges stemmed from Räsänen’s remarks on homosexuality in a 2019 tweet, on a nationally syndicated radio program, and in a 23-page booklet she authored and Pohjola published in 2004 titled Male and Female He Created Them. The tweet included a photo of the Bible verses Romans 1:24-27.
The court’s 28-page ruling ordered the state prosecutor to pay more than 60,000 euros in legal fees. It said that while Räsänen’s comments could be considered offensive, they did not constitute hate speech. The judges offered a sharp rebuke: “It is not for the district court to interpret biblical concepts.”
Prosecutor General Raija Toiviainen has seven days to appeal the district court ruling, which Räsänen expects her to do. For her part, Räsänen said she is prepared to continue fighting for religious rights “in all necessary courts, also in the European Court of Human Rights.”
The criminal charges against Räsänen and Pohjola relied on Finland’s “ethnic agitation” law, adopted in the 1970s but amended several times to include people with disabilities or those who identify as LGBT. Toiviainen argued Räsänen’s expression of her beliefs overstepped freedom of speech and religion boundaries because it was “likely to fuel intolerance, contempt, and even hatred toward homosexuals.”
Räsänen and Pohjola faced fines and a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment. On a livestream conference call following Wednesday’s ruling, they each expressed relief over their acquittal. Räsänen said she was grateful to defend free speech and hopes it “will prevent others from having to go through the same ordeal.”
“If this kind of questioning of free speech is possible in a country like Finland, which has a reputation regarding free speech internationally, the same is possible anywhere,” Räsänen said.
Pohjola said the prosecution had “cast a shadow of fear over society” and encouraged Christians to continue confessing their faith in the public arena.
Unless the ruling is appealed, it holds no precedential value in Finland or in other European countries. Still, Paul Coleman, executive director of Alliance Defending Freedom International, the nonprofit legal firm representing Räsänen, said it “will be extremely helpful for other such cases or prosecutions in the future because it now represents … the most detailed understanding and explanation of how Christian beliefs on marriage and human sexuality ought to be viewed in the eyes of the court.”
Regarding Räsänen’s booklet, the court said, “the purpose of [her] writing was not to insult or offend homosexuals but to defend the concept of family and marriage between a man and a woman according to Räsänen’s religious beliefs.”