A Secular Blasphemy Trial
A Christian woman sends out a tweet criticizing the practices of a state-sanctioned religious body. The woman includes a picture of some Bible verses to bolster her point. A politically motivated prosecutor launches an investigation and combs through years of the woman’s public writings and statements, finally bringing charges against the woman for “ethnic agitation.” The charges come with a potential penalty of two years in prison for her allegedly offensive speech and dissent. The woman also happens to be a high-profile opposition politician.
Where did this occur? You might say in the Middle East or North Africa, where Christians and members of other religious minority groups are regularly arrested and imprisoned simply for wishing to speak freely and share the tenets of their faith with others. Places where dissident political figures are often silenced by the government.
But in this case, you’d be wrong. Instead, the woman in this example is Päivi Räsänen, a longtime member of Parliament in Finland. In 2019, she tweeted a criticism of her own church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELCF), for its sponsorship of a pride parade, along with a picture of a verse from the Letter to the Romans. The ELCF was previously the established church of Finland and is still considered a national church. Räsänen’s tweet was in accordance with the church’s traditional teachings on human sexuality, although that teaching has recently been the subject of intense debate.
This simple tweet started a legal odyssey for Räsänen. Despite police having found her tweet perfectly legal, the Finnish prosecutor general dug up soundbites taken out of an hour-long radio interview, and a 17-year-old pamphlet Räsänen had written for her church, and brought charges against Räsänen and her publisher, Juhana Pohjola, who is now a Lutheran bishop. Their trial began last week on January 24.
The case has drawn international pushback and is seen by many as an extreme example of prosecutorial overreach based on vague “hate-speech” laws. Numerous church organizations have condemned the proceedings. U.K. members of parliament tabled a motion that expressed concern “at the potential implications of th[e] case for other countries.” U.S. senators, led by Marco Rubio, described the prosecution as “tantamount to a secular blasphemy law.”
The description is apt. Many countries around the world criminalize blasphemy or enforce “religious-offense” laws. Defenders of blasphemy laws say that no one has the right to denigrate the majority religion, that blasphemy causes pain and dignitary harms to majority practitioners, and harms the social fabric and national unity.
Each of these defenses found their way into the Finnish prosecutor’s arguments at trial—dressed in the language of secularism but opposed to any actual neutrality on religion and belief. One of the bedrock legal principles of religious freedom is that the state is not competent to decide theological questions in order to prosecute those of other beliefs. Yet the prosecutor acted like a theologian, claiming that it was not possible to “hate the sin, but love the sinner,” despite the distinction between sin and sinner being core to Christianity. The prosecutor argued that Räsänen’s statements were opposed to principles of equality and human dignity, and that it was worse to call someone a sinner than a criminal, even though Räsänen had stated that everyone was a sinner, herself included.
With the rise of instant worldwide communication and social media, many governments have become convinced that they must censor speech they find disagreeable. They quickly move from banning clear incitement to violence to censoring speech that could be construed by someone, somewhere, as insulting or offensive. At Räsänen’s trial, the prosecution did not even introduce a single witness who claimed to be harmed by her speech.
Such a capacious view of “hate speech” is ripe for abuse and arbitrary application, and justifies the worst and most censorious behaviors by governments. Who will feel safe speaking on controversial subjects when even a member of Parliament can be hauled in front of a court for expressing her sincere beliefs? How can any traditional religious believers—whether Christians, Muslims, Jews, or otherwise—express their opinions in public when their holy books are viewed by governments as too offensive to share? “Hate-speech” laws have become so prominent in Europe that even a country like Algeria now cites case law from the European Court of Human Rights to justify its blasphemy laws.
It doesn’t matter what justifications governments give for criminalizing the expression of non-violent, sincerely held religious speech. Every religion’s tenets are controversial somewhere, and every religion’s adherents face persecution in some place. No one who supports the fundamental freedoms of speech and religion should shy away from criticism of any government when it commits such an egregious violation of rights as Finland has in the case of Päivi Räsänen’s and Bishop Pohjola. If countries that call themselves “free” and “democratic” will not protect disfavored speech and religious beliefs, then who will?
Sean Nelson serves as legal counsel for global religious freedom with ADF International, where he advocates on behalf of Christians and other religious minorities being persecuted for their faith around the world.