HELSINKI, Finland —The verdict in the closely watched trial of a Finnish Christian MP was announced on Wednesday.
A court in Helsinki dismissed all charges against Päivi Räsänen, a physician and mother of five, and Juhana Pohjola, a bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland, after a free speech trial that drew international attention.
The court said in a unanimous 28-page ruling on March 30 that “it is not for the district court to interpret biblical concepts.”
It said that Räsänen had sought to “defend the concept of family and marriage between a man and a woman.” If some people found the statements offensive, it said, “there must be an overriding social reason for interfering with and restricting freedom of expression.”
It ordered the state to pay legal costs to the defense of more than 60,000 euros (over $66,000).
Räsänen said: “I am so grateful the court recognized the threat to free speech and ruled in our favor. I feel a weight has been lifted off my shoulders after being acquitted.”
“Although I am grateful for having had this chance to stand up for freedom of speech, I hope that this ruling will help prevent others from having to go through the same ordeal.”
The charges against the 62-year-old Räsänen related to her comments in a 2004 pamphlet, her appearance on a 2018 television program, and a Twitter post in 2019.
The Prosecutor General charged Räsänen, who served as Finland’s interior minister from 2011 to 2015, with incitement against a minority group, arguing that her statements were “likely to cause intolerance, contempt, and hatred towards homosexuals.”
The charge against Pohjola concerned his decision to publish Räsänen’s pamphlet, Male and Female He Created Them.
Finland is a country with a population of 5.5 million people, bordering Norway, Russia, and Sweden. Around two-thirds of the population belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, one of the country’s two national churches, alongside the Finnish Orthodox Church.
Räsänen, who was chairwoman of the Christian Democrats party from 2004 to 2015, is an active member of the Finnish Lutheran Church. But she questioned her church’s sponsorship of an LGBT pride event in 2019.
On June 17, 2019, she asked in a Twitter post how the sponsorship was compatible with the Bible, linking to a photograph of a biblical passage, Romans 1:24-27, on Instagram. She also posted the text and image on Facebook.
“The purpose [of] my tweet was in no way to insult sexual minorities. My criticism was aimed at the leadership of the church,” she told the journal First Things.
Discussing the tweet in court, she underlined that it was directed at Church leaders and concerned an important topic facing the Church.
Police began investigating Räsänen in 2019. She faced several police interviews and had to wait more than a year for the Prosecutor General’s decision.
The International Lutheran Council described the decision to prosecute Räsänen and Pohjola as “egregious.”
It said: “The vast majority of Christians in all nations, including Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, share these convictions. Would the Finnish Prosecutor General condemn us all? Moreover, shall the Finnish state risk governmental sanctions from other states based on the abuse of foundational human rights?”
Addressing the pamphlet, which described homosexuality as “a disorder of psycho-sexual development,” Räsänen told the court that she was asked to write a text outlining Lutheran teaching on sexuality for members of her church, from her viewpoint as a politician, doctor, and Christian.
She said that the pamphlet was outdated given changes in research and legislation since 2004. But she said that it should still exist as a document testifying to the discussions taking place at that time.
Crowds of supporters gathered outside the court during the trial. The American Pastor Andrew Brunson, who spent two years in detention in Turkey, flew to Finland to give Räsänen a prayer pledge of support signed by Christians worldwide, organized by the Family Research Council.
A group of U.S. senators wrote on Jan. 24 to Rashad Hussain, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, expressing concern at the trial.
“We are greatly concerned that the use of Finnish hate speech law is tantamount to a secular blasphemy law,” they said.
“It could open the door for prosecution of other devout Christians, Muslims, Jews and adherents of other faiths for publicly stating their religious beliefs.”
The Christian legal group ADF International said that the prosecution argued in its closing statement that the word “sin” can be harmful.
“The Apostle Paul isn’t on trial here, but Räsänen is,” the prosecution reportedly said, calling for the defendants to be fined.
Räsänen’s defense argued that a guilty verdict would damage free speech in Finland. They suggested that that trial had become a theological debate on the question “what is sin?”, which they said was an inappropriate topic for a court.
The defense cited the 1976 Handyside v United Kingdom case by the European Court of Human Rights, which said that freedom of expression extended to ideas that “offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population.”
Paul Coleman, ADF International’s executive director, who was present on the first day of the trial on Jan. 24, commented: “I would characterize the day as a modern-day Inquisition or heresy trial and the heresy was that Päivi and Bishop Juhana were on trial against the new sexual orthodoxy of the day.”
The state prosecutor has seven days to decide whether to lodge an appeal.