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Religion and freedom of speech

Legislative changes on marriage and the polarisation in ecclesiastical decision-making in Finland have also provoked public discussion on same-sex relationships in the 2010s (see Same-sex marriage). A visible figure in the media has been Päivi Räsänen, a seventh-term member of the Finnish Parliament and ex-chairperson of the Christian Democrats, who has on multiple occasions publicly taken a stand on church and same-sex relationship. Räsänen’s conservative views have raised opposing reactions in a historical context where 51% of the Finnish population and 51% of the ELCF (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland) members are favourable to the idea of same-sex couples having the right to marry in the church (2019). At the same time, there are also more conservative views on marriage. Because of Räsänen’s statements about homosexuals, there have been notices of crime where Räsänen has been suspected of ethnic agitation. Discussion has been linked to the subject of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

In Finland, ethnic agitation (in Finnish: Kiihottaminen kansanryhmää vastaan) was criminalised for the first time in 1970. Although the term used in the law is translated as ethnic agitation, the Finnish term (kansanryhmä) is broader, including also other groups such as sexual minorities and religious groups. The mention of sexual orientation was added to the law only in 2011. Criminal Code (2011/511) defines ethnic agitation in chapter 11 which includes war crimes and crimes against humanity. Section 10 states that “[a] person who makes available to the public or otherwise spreads among the public or keeps available for the public information, an expression of opinion or another message where a certain group is threatened, defamed or insulted on the basis of its race, skin colour, birth status, national or ethnic origin, religion or belief, sexual orientation or disability or a comparable basis, shall be sentenced for ethnic agitation to a fine or to imprisonment for at most two years”. Section 10(a), then, separates the aggravated form of the crime.

The Prosecutor General has charged Räsänen with agitation against homosexuals on three separate cases where Räsänen refers to Bible, stating that practising homosexuality is clearly against the Biblical doctrine. The first one concerns a 24-pages long text about Räsänen’s views on how God created people as men and women and how gay relationships challenge the Christian view of human beings. According to the Prosecutor General, Räsänen has expressed derogatory opinions and information and claimed that homosexuality is scientifically proven to be a psychosexual development disorder. A text was published by the Luther Foundation of Finland in 2004, which is why the representative of the publisher, Juhana Pohjola, has also been charged. The Luther Foundation Finland is a spiritual reform movement that is known for its criticism of the secularisation of the church. It is operating as one of the background organisations of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland, which is an independent Lutheran church formed by its member congregations.

The second point of charge concerns Räsänen’s post on social media (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook) in June 2019 where Räsänen asked how the basis of the church doctrine, the Bible, is coherent with raising shame and sin as a source of pride.

The third case concerns Räsänen’s discussion on a radio programme at the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle) in August 2020. The theme was “what would Jesus think about gays”. According to the Prosecutor General, Räsänen talked in a derogatory manner about homosexuality.

The Prosecutor General views Räsänen’s statements as derogatory and discriminatory; the statements violate equal treatment and human dignity of homosexuals, so they cross the boundary of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. According to the Prosecutor General, Räsänen’s statements can lead to intolerance, contempt and hate against homosexuals. Räsänen has denied the charge on agitation against homosexuals. Räsänen states having emphasised that every person is of equal worth and that those words are meant to oppose homosexual practice and the ideology of the Gay Pride, not a person. The charge will be tried in Helsinki local court.

Räsänen considers that charges have to do with the freedom of speech and religion; whether it is allowed to express convictions based on the Bible and traditional teachings of the church. The media discussion around this issue has been polarised, some being worried, alongside Räsänen, about the danger these charges place on the freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and others emphasising the discriminatory effects of Räsänen’s views.

The question of sexual minorities has also influenced the development of church membership. For example, a TV-discussion show on the rights of homosexuals from autumn 2010 resulted in a significant number of seceding from the church. Räsänen was taking part in the discussion, not officially representing the church but claiming to defend the Biblical view of marriage. Many Finns consider the views of Räsänen old-fashioned while some decided to secede from the church because they think it has become too liberal.

Read more:
- Ketola, Kimmo & Helander, Eila (2019) Same-sex marriage and the Lutheran Church in Finland: How rapid change in values and norms challenges the church and its decision-making. Z Religion Ges Polit (2020) 4:315–334.
- Teivainen, Aleksi (2021) Finnish MP charged with ethnic agitation over remarks about homosexuals (helsinkitimes.fi). Published on 30 April 2021. Referred on 10 May 2021.

D 25 June 2021    AAnita Sipilä

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