A religious freedom trial in Finland involving a senior politician and a Bishop has exposed the danger of ‘hate speech’ laws and their potential to stifle free speech and freedom of religious expression.
The ongoing case is similar to that of Lyle Shelton, who was subjected to legal action for three and a half years for questioning a drag queen story time event for children hosted by a public library in 2020. Shelton was accused of vilification and “inciting hatred” towards particular individuals.
In April 2021, Former Minister of the Interior in the Finnish parliament, Päivi Räsänen was charged for “agitation of a minority group” after a tweet in which she questioned her church’s sponsorship of Helsinki LGBTQ ‘Pride 2019’ event, which was accompanied by an image of Bible verses. Police also investigated Räsänen for her involvement in a radio debate and a 2004 church pamphlet.
Bishop Juhana Pohjola was also charged for publishing the pamphlet.
The two were unanimously acquitted at the Helsinki District Court in 2022.
However, the prosecution has since appealed the “not guilty” verdict, keeping the threat of severe penalties alive and setting a worrying precedent for freedom of religious expression.
The charges against Räsänen and Pohjola are notably severe, falling under the section of Finnish criminal code associated with “war crimes and crimes against humanity,” and could result in tens of thousands of euros in fines or even a two-year prison sentence.
The two are being represented by legal advocacy organisation ADF International, whose Executive Director Paul Coleman said:
“Criminalizing speech through so-called ‘hate-speech’ laws shuts down important public debates and endangers democracy.”
The increasing tendency to penalise sincerely held opinions or religious views that are at odds with the public consensus poses a grave threat to the foundation of healthy and robust liberal democracies.
State power should never be used as a tool for suppressing dissenting perspectives, much less for criminally prosecuting those who hold and express them.
Laws such as Australia's vilification laws—which recently led to the legal action against Lyle Shelton—should be critically reviewed.
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