The facts are the same. The arguments, the same. But for two days in an appeals court in Helsinki, prosecution and defense rehashed the arguments that previously cleared Finnish politician Päivi Räsänen and Evangelical Lutheran Mission bishop Juhana Pohjola of charges of criminal incitement against a minority group.
State prosecutors argued there was a mistake last March. They say the district court weighed the evidence incorrectly, setting the threshold for “incitement” too high. According to them, a pamphlet the former minister of the interior published with a conservative Lutheran press in 2004, and comments she made about homosexuality on Twitter and on a national radio show in 2019, should be judged as hate speech.
State prosecutor Anu Mantila says Räsänen’s comments are not only disagreeable and offensive, but harmful.
“Offensive speech has a damaging effect on people,” she said.
Mantila said Räsänen’s statements characterized homosexuality as immoral and as a psychosocial developmental disorder. Räsänen describes same-sex attraction as unhealthy and abnormal—something that requires treatment. According to the state, that “devalues and denigrates homosexuals.”
“If you put all the statements together,” she said, “it is clear that they are derogatory towards homosexuals. Condemning homosexual acts condemns homosexuals as human beings.”
The prosecutor also argued there is no religious defense for that kind of hate speech.
“You can’t say anything under the guise of religion,” Mantila said. “You can cite the Bible, but it is Räsänen’s interpretation and opinion about the Bible verses that are criminal.”
Räsänen, on the other hand, is making a free-speech case.
“You do not need to agree with my beliefs to agree that in a democratic society everyone should have the right to speak freely,” she said. “Freedom of expression and faith are guaranteed in the Finnish constitution and every major human rights treaty.”
The Finnish politician, a leader in the small, center-right Christian Democratic party that is part of the coalition government, also believes her case is critical for the future of religious liberty in Finland.
“If we lose,” she said, “anyone citing or preaching from the Bible or publishing materials on these teachings would face criminal prosecution.”
One of Räsänen’s alleged acts of incitement is a Bible quotation. She posted Romans 1:24–27 on Twitter (now X) to criticize the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland for its affiliation with a Helsinki Pride event. The national church does not perform same-sex marriages, but has grown increasingly affirming of LGBT Christians. Räsänen led the opposition against the passage of a law recognizing same-sex marriage in 2017.
Defending her words as simple expressions of biblical teachings on sexuality, Räsänen said the court will now have to decide whether “Christian beliefs are considered a criminal act in modern-day Finland.”
Räsänen’s attorneys see this as a critical religious liberty battle in Europe. She is being represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a legal advocacy group with headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Vienna, Austria. ADF International’s executive director, Paul Coleman, claims the Finnish government is attempting to use this case to “intimidate others into silence.”
This is exactly what Pohjola, the bishop of a Lutheran church that broke from the state church over beliefs about sexuality, most fears. He said that if the district court’s decision is overturned, his church body’s 2,360 members could be viewed as “criminal.”
This would have a “chilling effect in our society,” he said, “but specifically for my church members who would be guilty by association.”
In the lower court, the judges found that while Räsänen’s words might be offensive, they did not amount to “incitement to hatred,” and should thus be considered legal. The court decided that the purpose of Räsänen’s writing was not to insult or harm LGBT people but to defend what she believed to be the biblical concepts of family and marriage.
During the trial, both parties cited biblical texts so frequently that the court’s chairman had to remind them that the judges would decide the case on the basis of Finnish law and not the Bible. The court also stated in its decision that it is not its job to determine whether a particular interpretation of a scriptural passage is correct.
Räsänen said if she loses in the appeals court, she is willing to take her case to the Supreme Court and then, if need be, to the European Court of Human Rights.
If she wins, however, that will probably be the end of the legal battle. The threshold for appeal is quite low for the Helsinki court; it would be much higher going forward. No case like this has gone to the Finnish Supreme Court before.
“With two decisions in our favor,” attorney Matti Sankamo said, “I doubt we will see this taken up by the Supreme Court.”
The court’s decision is expected in one to three months.