Religious speech on trial in Finland
Two Christians face charges for statements on Biblical sexuality
During a nearly nine-hour trial last week, a Finnish prosecutor laid out the case against politician Päivi Räsänen and Lutheran Bishop Juhana Pohjola, who are on trial for expressing their Biblical beliefs about homosexuality.
In April 2021, Finland’s Prosecutor General Raija Toiviainen charged Räsänen—a 62-year-old medical doctor, longtime Finnish member of parliament, and former interior minister—with “ethnic agitation.” Räsänen’s past statements on homosexuality were “likely to fuel intolerance, contempt, and even hatred toward homosexuals … and thus oversteps the boundaries of freedom of speech and religion,” the prosecutor’s office said in a statement.
The charges relate to three instances of Räsänen expressing Biblical and personal views on homosexuality. In a 2019 Twitter post, she attached a picture of the Biblical text in Romans 1:24-27 and denounced the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELCF), one of the country’s two national churches, for partnering with a local LGBT Pride event. The charges also target remarks she made on a nationally syndicated Finnish public radio program and a 23-page booklet she released in 2004 titled, “Male and Female He Created Them.”
Pohjola, 49, faces charges for publishing Räsänen’s booklet through the Luther Foundation Finland, a ministry arm of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland. The small group of conservative congregations formed after a 2013 split from the ELCF, in part over the denomination’s acceptance of homosexuality and transgenderism.
The case against Räsänen and Pohjola has attracted widespread international attention. The International Lutheran Council, a worldwide association of confessional Lutherans, protested the “unjust treatment” of Räsänen and Pohjola and called the actions of the Finnish prosecutors egregious. A citizens petition supporting Räsänen has garnered more than 335,000 signatures.
Alliance Defending Freedom International, the legal group representing Räsänen and Pohjola, said a ruling against them would not establish an immediate legal precedent for other European countries. It would, however, “set a new low bar for European free speech standards,” said Lois McLatchie, a representative from ADF International. Five U.S. lawmakers urged Rashad Hussain, the U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, to monitor the case. They argue it could “open the door for prosecution of other devout Christians, Muslims, Jews, and adherents of other faiths for publicly stating their religious beliefs that may conflict with secular trends.”
Räsänen and Pohjola face a maximum sentence of two years imprisonment. The trial resumes on Feb. 14, and a verdict is expected to follow within a month. The prosecutor ordered fines for Räsänen, Pohjola, and the Luther Foundation. She also asked for Räsänen’s writings and statements to be removed from the internet, including the distribution of her booklet on the Luther Foundation’s website.
The booklet, intended for Lutheran laity, emphasizes that the Christian concept of humanity recognizes everyone’s inherent value, regardless of their sexual orientation. It characterizes same-sex partnerships as conflicting with God’s design for marriage and sex and sinful according to Scripture. Räsänen suggested homosexual tendencies are a result of a “disorder of psycho-sexual development.” On this point, Räsänen said during the trial that some information in the pamphlet is outdated since research and legislation have changed. Still, she argued it usefully reflects discussions taking place at the time. Censorship “would open the floodgates to a ban on similar publications,” Räsänen told WORLD.
Pohjola expressed similar concern. “What worries me is if [the prosecutor’s] arguments are considered valid, that’s a radical shift in the understanding of freedom of religion,” he said. “As a Lutheran bishop, I have no other way of teaching. … We have to make a basic distinction between the value of human beings and judging our acts in light of the Word of God.”
Räsänen, a pastor’s wife, mother of five, and grandmother of seven, clutched a Bible as she entered the court on Jan. 24. She called it an honor to defend freedom of speech and religion and vowed to continue fighting if the case reaches higher courts, including the European Court of Human Rights.
Following the proceedings, Räsänen sent an email to supporters saying she was relieved the long-awaited and heavy day was over. She said she waits for the verdict “with a calm and hopeful mind.”
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