The Rasanen case: where the drift against freedom of speech and faith can go in the West

Finnish MP accused of hate speech for sharing a passage from the Bible acquitted . An emblematic example of the legal repercussions on freedom of speech that would derive from the Zan Bill …

A few days ago, on March 30, a rather important sentence arrived, but which received very little attention from the Italian press, with which the Helsinki District Court acquitted Bishop Juhana Pohjola of the Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission of Finland (ELMDF ) and Finnish deputy – and former interior minister – Päivi Räsänen from all charges. Of course, it can be said that these days there is no lack of content with which to fill the columns of the newspapers, and that a sentence of a Finnish court can in any case be of limited interest for the Italian public. Yes, but I believe that many, as soon as I provide some details on the affair, will clearly remember how the indictment of the two defendants had received much more coverage in the national press as well. The two, in fact, had been accused of "hate crimes", specifically for having proposed and articulated, in various forms and modalities, what their defense called "the historical Christian teaching on human sexuality".

Probably now many, as we begin to clarify what we are talking about, you will remember why there was much talk of the affair, when the Helsinki public prosecutor had asked for the conviction of the two: we were in 2021 and here in Italy we were divided on the Ddl Zan and, above all, on its legal repercussions on freedom of speech. In that context, which can now appear distant only because the topic has temporarily gone off the radar, the request for condemnation of two prominent figures such as a bishop and a deputy had been welcomed with great satisfaction by a part of Italian public opinion, evidently anxious to be able to apply comparable rigor to "hate speech" in our country as well, while another party cited it with understandable concern as a striking example of the possible consequences of legislation aimed at regulating with such precision what is lawful or not to say.

But let's see, specifically, what the accusations were. Dr Räsänen, a leading figure in Finnish politics for the past 20 years, had been accused of hate speech for writing a small pamphlet in 2004, in which she illustrated the traditional teaching of the Lutheran Church on human sexuality, in the context of heated debate then underway in Finland on the legalization of same-sex marriage. At the time, Räsänen had recently been elected leader of the small centrist party of the Christian Democrats, at that time in the opposition, and had expressed her position, essentially basing it on the classical theses of Nordic Christianity. In subsequent years, Räsänen would also hold government posts, serving as interior minister from 2011 to 2015, and the matter seemed to have passed almost into political oblivion, as they say.

Except suddenly becoming topical again in recent years, when a split was created in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, which is a "national church" recognized by the state and linked to it in a non-dependent but still relevant way. Some more conservative exponents, dissatisfied with the growing compromises on the subject of sexuality, such as the participation of an official delegation in the 2019 Pride parade, have decided to abandon it to found the previously mentioned Evangelical Lutheran Mission of Finland. In fact, this is an absolutely marginal reality – about 2,000 members, against the almost 3.7 million of the national Church – which, however, has attracted growing hostility on the part of an important part of public opinion and politics, at first, and then also of the judiciary.

Bishop Pohjola, who is one of the main exponents, has been accused because of his role as editor of the pamphlet in question, recently reissued by the ELMDF, as part of the "awareness campaign" carried out by the same. His position was in fact less serious than that of Dr. Räsänen, and the prosecution's demands for him were a fine equal to 60 days of his personal income – Finland adopts a progressive income-based approach on fines and penalties – in addition to 10 thousand euros to the detriment of the Church for having published and disseminated material that would constitute hate speech.

Much more serious was the position of the co-defendant, for which the maximum penalty was requested: a fine equal to 120 days of income. In fact, for her there were also two other counts of hate speech in the context of public statements in the mass media on sexuality. In particular, social media had been a convict. It all started with a Facebook post from 2019, in which the deputy, who is an active member of the national Church and is married to a pastor of the same, criticized her aforementioned participation in Pride . The post (shown in the image in the original language) was indeed rather terse and left very little room for interpretation: "how can what is the doctrinal foundation of the Church, the Bible, be compatible with the elevation of shame and sin because of pride? ". The post was then accompanied by a photo of a page from a Bible, which read a verse from the Epistle to the Romans (1: 24,27), which defines sexual relations between persons of the same sex as "unclean", " infamous "and" unnatural ".

This is undoubtedly a clear-cut position, which can arouse understandable resentment from many people. However, it remains to be seen whether this is a hate speech, as immediately assumed by the Helsinki prosecutor's office. A couple of months later, when it was already known that an investigation had been launched, Räsänen published another time on social media , this time on Twitter : a short tweet of August 13, in which she said that she was not in the least worried about herself. , but to be so at the thought that "quoting the Bible can be considered even slightly illegal", and to hope that this will not "lead Christians to self-censor".

A fuss had arisen immediately, given the high visibility of the deputy. However, the investigation by the Helsinki judicial authorities had ended without any criminal facts being highlighted, but the Finnish Attorney General Raija Toiviainen made the matter a battle of national significance. Last April, the announcement of the indictment, on the basis of the law that punishes war crimes and crimes against humanity, which was expected to be applied to the case in question, as the accused would have openly incited violence in the against a minority. The case immediately became an object of international interest: at first, especially the evangelical associations moved, driven by the official position of the National Church of Finland, which expressed important concern for the potential interference of the judiciary and of politics no longer only in its public expressions, but also in its theological basis.

The process immediately had implications for religious freedom and its future in Finland, as well as for that of the related freedom of speech: implications that cannot but have been evident for all observers, even if, in practice, yes only conservative and liberal voices are raised to express concern – even in Italy. From the variegated sector of progressives, no particular comments arrived, except in response to what was said in this regard from the other side, more than anything else in an attempt to deny the parallel between what was happening in Finland and the prospects that would have opened with the approval of the Zan law in its full form.

If you remember, in those months there were several dubious positions on the bill in question, some based on ideological positions intrinsic to the issues of the same, others arising from the fear that it would damage basic sources of freedom of speech and go de facto to make the judiciary the ultimate decision-maker of what is lawful to say and what is not, on which arguments dissenting thoughts can be expressed and on which not.

Indeed, this is exactly what happened in Helsinki, where, in the course of the trial, the prosecution focused on a scrupulous examination of the individual doctrinal beliefs of the defendants, beliefs that are part of their personal religious beliefs. The consequence of this approach was, according to the statements made by Bishop Pohjola at the end of the reading of the sentence, that there was a "confusion of legal and theological arguments", which seemed unprecedented and worryingly out of place in a civil court in many commentators. In particular, great interest and concern has aroused in the United States, where a group of ten academics belonging to the most prestigious universities in the country such as Harvard , Yale and Stanford and made up of Christians, Jews and non-religious people, has submitted a petition to the Commission for freedom of religion in the world. According to the petitioners, such a judicial proceeding is of particular concern, as it potentially represents the first step towards "open acts of persecution" based on religious belief, and ominously recalls the type of criminal proceedings that take place in countries that apply a more or less harsh regime of state atheism – such as China, for example.

As the trial progressed, then, five Republican senators signed a document addressed to Rashad Hussain, the American representative for freedom of religion in the world, in which they argued that regardless of whether the Finnish judges were eventually to deem admissible or minus the religious views of the defendants, the very fact that representatives of the judicial branch of a democratic nation express themselves on such matters represents an extremely dangerous precedent – even more so when one thinks of the high profile of the defendants.

At the end of the trial, Pohjola declared that he considered the sentence "a victory for freedom of speech and religion in Finland and beyond". The point is certainly of fundamental importance: we undoubtedly live in an era in which the influence of religion on Western societies is diminishing, and this inevitably entails that we look differently at the institutions and ideas that religions inspire. This should not, however, mean making the profession or even the mere discussion of such ideas liable not only for condemnation, but also for review by any state authority. If you take a tour of that modern representation of a painting by Hyeronimus Bosch that is Twitter , you will have the opportunity to see all sorts of coarse reactions to this sentence, on both sides, on which stands a notable hatred towards what it is experienced by many as a "victory of reaction" and "a step backwards in the field of rights".

What I think is important to underline, first of all, is that here we are not dealing with a case like that of Westboro Baptist Church , a small American reality that has stood out for its direct incitement to carry out physical violence on all sorts of categories, from Jews to US soldiers and reservists. Here it is a question of a true and authentic process of ideas. There is no doubt that the Attorney General tried to criminalize traditional Christian teaching on human sexuality, as the trial took place precisely and solely on this issue. However you think about it, blaming people for expressing their ideas in a way that is consistent with their faith and peacefully should at least raise a shadow of fear.

A Christian church is founded on the Bible, which it chooses to interpret in the way it deems theologically most appropriate: but it is not the task of the state to decide which it is, and above all it is not the task of the state to take care to prevent the churches from publicly expressing their vision of the world. There are many countries where those who practice a religion must do it secretly, or as we often hear on social media "in private, at home", ie without anyone having to come into contact with the ideas and practices in question. I don't think it is necessary to make a complete list, but, counting only those who persecute all faiths and not one in particular, we can remember China, North Korea, Eritrea.

Nobody says that the West is taking this path, but that there are, within it, very worrying trends regarding the way of conceiving freedom is undoubted. The bishop says that "a strong signal has been given by the Court" to "defend our fundamental rights as citizens and Christians", even if in reality it is only the first degree of judgment, and the prosecutor will most likely appeal. But in the meantime it is a good starting point, this unanimous decision, with which the three judges of the Helsinki District Court established that both defendants were acquitted of all charges, especially for the reasons given: "interpreting biblical concepts is not the role of the district court ". The Court also ordered the State to pay the legal costs incurred by the defense, precisely by virtue of this lack of foundation for a proceeding of this kind.

There are those who went further in commenting on the decision in question, such as Timothy Quill, secretary general of the Lutheran International Council (ILC), who provided extensive media coverage to the affair, and according to whom there is "a dangerous movement in societies Westerners ”, which aims“ to impose ”a sort of“ progressive secular religion ”at the expense of freedom of speech and religion. What seems certain is that often those who consider themselves invested with the task of carrying on the fulfillment of magnificent and progressive destinies tend to quickly put aside Voltaire's famous quote about giving one's life to allow others to express unwelcome opinions, preferring them. the one, perhaps even more abused, attributed to Popper on the need not to tolerate the intolerant. If this attitude can satisfy those who reflect themselves in totalitarian ideologies on the right or left, it should certainly not be greeted with anything but fear by those who take liberal positions: democracy is explicitly based on freedom of faith and speech, of religion and expression, and this freedom must not stop in the face of opinions that we do not like.

"There can be no right not to feel offended by anything or anyone," said MEP Räsänen briefly but hitting the point. We are not required to share the MP or the Bible's position on the nature of homosexual relationships, nor to apply it to our existence, we must not like her views on the people who practice them, but we have no right to prevent her from having it or to read it. from the sacred text of what remains the prevailing religion recognized in his country, nor to expose them within the civil political confrontation. At least, we do not yet have this right, and the Helsinki ruling – as pointed out by Marco Rubio and the other American senators – confirms it, but at the same time warns us of how close we are to having to defend the right that we do have, to think, speak and pray freely, before the state courts.

The post The Rasanen case: where the drift against freedom of speech and faith can go in the West appeared first on Atlantico Quotidiano .


This is a machine translation from Italian language of a post published on Atlantico Quotidiano at the URL https://www.atlanticoquotidiano.it/quotidiano/il-caso-rasanen-dove-puo-arrivare-in-occidente-la-deriva-contro-liberta-di-parola-e-di-fede/ on Sat, 02 Apr 2022 03:48:00 +0000.