Will Finland side with religious freedom?
A decision in a high-profile European religious freedom case is expected to be handed down by month’s end. Finnish Parliament member Päivi Räsänen is charged with three counts of “ethnic agitation” under a hate speech law in the criminal code for articulating a Christian understanding of marriage and sexuality in a tweet, a radio show, and a 20-year-old pamphlet. At stake in this important case is not only freedom of speech but also the freedom to believe and express fundamental tenets of the Christian faith. So, even if Finland chooses not to side with religious freedom in this case, we must do so.
The Finnish prosecutor promised that the Bible was not on trial. But in the Helsinki courtroom during the first hearing in January, the prosecutor argued that Christians such as Räsänen could not separate their disapproval for actions prohibited in the Bible from disapproval — indeed, even hatred — of people. The prosecutor claimed, “Understanding deeds as sin is derogatory.”
Bizarre as it was for a prosecutor in a wealthy European democracy to try to parse Christian theology in a courtroom, her line of questioning prompted Räsänen to clarify basic Christian teachings in a news release on Feb. 11: “God so loved all the people, that He gave His only Son to die on the cross to suffer the punishment that belonged to us because of our sins. Jesus condemned the sin but loved the sinners.” This is the core message of the Gospel, and if Finnish Christians can’t express and practice this belief, they have no religious freedom at all.
Although the maximum sentence could be two years in jail, the prosecution is asking for Räsänen to be fined. Even this is absurd. Free societies do not fine individuals for peaceful speech, no matter how unpopular an opinion might be. Proponents of free speech fear the charges placed against Räsänen will have a chilling effect on religious expression.
Americans might be tempted to think this problem is unique to Europe. Far from it. Dangerous attacks on freedom of expression are coming to the United States — and in some respects, they’re already here. Some employees of large corporations or law firms self-censor from expressing opinions that the secular dogma might frown upon. Social media platforms are quick to remove users — including public figures — for anything they deem to be hateful content. Although there has not been legal action like the charges against Räsänen, many Americans feel the chill on speech.
We must not allow the secular equivalent of blasphemy laws to take root in law or culture. What’s unfolding in Finland should be a wake-up call to stand for our freedoms, rather than take them for granted. We may not think that such a case could happen in the United States, but Räsänen thought the same thing about Finland until it happened to her.
Throughout her trial, Räsänen has demonstrated optimism, graciousness and unwavering resolve. She has a deep conviction that the case is about more than her; she’s defending the basic rights of her countrymen and all people. She has said, “I cannot accept that voicing religious beliefs could mean imprisonment. I will defend my right to confess my faith, so that no one else would be deprived of their right to freedom of religion and speech.”
As Räsänen holds the line on fundamental freedoms for the citizens of Finland, we must stand with her. The danger of remaining silent in the face of injustice was well summarized by German pastor Martin Niemöller, a Nazi concentration camp survivor: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
We must speak up for Päivi Räsänen and others, no matter where in the world their fundamental human rights are being threatened. Soon, we may be the ones who need defending.
Frank Wolf served as the U.S. representative for Virginia’s 10th Congressional District from 1981 to 2015. Arielle Del Turco is the assistant director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council.