Win for free speech after Finnish MP acquitted of hate charges

In a significant victory for religious freedom, a Finnish court of appeal has unanimously acquitted Finnish MP Päivi Räsänen and Lutheran Bishop Juhana Pohjola of “hate crime” charges, which had arisen from their expression of traditional Christian beliefs regarding sexuality and gender.

Räsänen and Pohjola were unanimously acquitted at the Helsinki District Court in 2022, but the decision was appealed by state prosecutors, one of whom who took issue with Räsänen’s description of homosexuality as ‘sin’ and argued that while she was free to cite the Bible, “it is Räsänen’s interpretation and opinion about the Bible verses that are criminal”.

The main issue in this case, which is reminiscent of Lyle Shelton’s trial in Australia, was Räsänen's 2019 tweet, in which she expressed her disagreement with the Finnish Lutheran Church's promotion of LGBT "pride month" by citing verses from the Bible. She also faced charges for comments she made about homosexuality on a radio show and a pamphlet she wrote in 2004.

Paul Coleman, executive director of ADF International, who served on Räsänen's legal team  noted that the case was reminiscent of a medieval heresy trial:

At the heart of the prosecutor’s examination of Räsänen was this: would she recant her beliefs? … The answer was no – she would not deny the teachings of her faith. The cross-examination bore all the resemblance of a ‘heresy’ trial of the Middle Ages; it was implied that Räsänen had ‘blasphemed’ against the dominant orthodoxies of the day.

The appeals court however recognized the importance of free speech and upheld the district court's judgment, noting that there must be an overriding social reason to interfere with and restrict freedom of expression, reaffirming the importance of protecting individuals' rights to express their beliefs, even if they run counter to prevailing opinions.

The prosecution was ordered to pay tens of thousands of euros to cover the legal fees for both defendants.

Ms Rasanen said after the news of the acquittal:

The attempts made to prosecute me for expressing my beliefs have resulted in an immensely trying four years, but my hope is that the result will stand as a key precedent to protect the human right to free speech. I sincerely hope other innocent people will be spared the same ordeal for simply voicing their convictions.

In the broader context, this case reflects the challenges faced by individuals who hold traditional Christian values in an increasingly hostile environment in many Western nations around the world.

Here in Australia, we have witnessed similar proceedings being brought against individuals for publicly stating their Christian beliefs.

Tasmanian Catholic Archbishop Julian Porteous faced a complaint under Tasmania’s anti-discrimination laws in relation to a pamphlet from the Australian Catholic Bishops which was provided to parents in Catholic schools, outlining Catholic Church teaching on marriage. The complainant withdrew her complaint before the matter was heard, some eight months after lodging the complaint.

Lyle Shelton, former Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby and HRLA client, similarly had a vilification claim brought against him by two drag queens, after he published a blog in which he was critical of a drag queen story event held for children at a Brisbane public library.

This latest victory is a reminder of the importance of defending and upholding freedom of religion as well as freedom of speech, expression, and opinion, rights which form the cornerstone of democratic societies. They must be defended and safeguarded.

That’s why the HRLA exists – to provide the best possible defence for Australians of faith seeking to live out their beliefs in the public square, and to achieve generational wins that will provide a solid foundation and precedents for the exercise and protection of these freedoms.