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A criminal case involving religious expression in Finland may seem obscure and irrelevant to many Americans, but those involved in the case said it could have implications far beyond Europe.
Finnish Member of Parliament Päivi Räsänen and Lutheran Bishop Juhana Pohjola are both facing charges of “ethnic agitation” for expressing traditional Christian views on marriage and homosexuality. If convicted, both could face fines and time in prison.
The trial itself could have a chilling effect on free speech around the world regardless of the verdict, Alliance Defending Freedom International’s Lorcan Price, who is involved with the case, said.
During their closing arguments, the prosecution argued that the use of the word “sin” could be “harmful.” Both Price and Räsänen told Fox News Digital the essence of the prosecution’s case is that it is acceptable to quote and reference the Bible, but it cannot be interpreted in a way that is upsetting to anyone.
“This has a major chilling effect on all speech,” Price said. “Because what’s essentially being said here, is if somebody finds what you’re saying upsetting or offensive … then that itself can become a crime.”
“Americans are very, very lucky to have the First Amendment,” he added, noting many Europeans, like Räsänen, did not have the same protection.
In December, the European Commission presented an initiative to make hate speech, which is protected in the United States under the First Amendment, a crime across the EU. That law could make cases like Räsänen’s far more common, and its implications would be “pretty enormous,” Price said.
Not all Europeans enjoy the same freedom of speech protections provided by the First Amendment in the United States, and even U.S. citizens traveling to Europe could find themselves facing criminal charges for tweeting the wrong thing in the wrong place, Price said.
It is also not just Christian speech and text that could be banned. Price acknowledged that every religious text has elements that could be upsetting to others, and failing to protect religious speech could put people in a position where “you’re allowed to believe it, so long as you keep your views in your head, and you don’t express them.”
“Whether you’re a Christian in Finland or a trucker in Canada or somebody who disagrees with the policies of the United States government, we all have a similar goal which is to protect that hard-won freedom of expression and to protect the freedom to be able to dissent and to disagree,” Price said.
“What we’re seeing is an attempt by powerful organizations, media groups and certain politicians to close down certain forms of expression they simply don’t agree with.”
The case is currently being tried in Finland, but its implications could extend to Europe and the rest of the world. “We always say that what happens in Europe can be a cautionary tale in the United States,” Price said, adding there are “very powerful forces” opposing freedom of expression in America.
“I think Americans have to be very vigilant as to whether or not the hard-won freedom of expression they have in the Constitution starts to become eroded by legislation and unfavorable decisions by the courts.”
Räsänen told Fox News Digital she first faced criminal charges after questioning her church’s sponsorship of an LGBTQ pride event in 2009, tweeting about it and linking to an Instagram post with a picture of Romans 1:24-27, which reads: “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lust. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”
Several U.S. Senators sent a letter to the U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain encouraging him to “condemn [the] unjust prosecutions, and continue to monitor other developments that threaten religious freedom in Finland and Europe.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., signed the letter and told Fox News Digital in a statement, “If quoting the Bible is considered hate speech, then any idea of tolerance has been thrown out the window. The prosecutor in this case claims to support religious freedom, but her attempt to wield Finnish statute as a secular blasphemy law says otherwise. The U.S. should stand firm against this blatant attack on religion, even in a valuable strategic partner like Finland.”
The Finnish court is expected to make a ruling at the end of March. Both Price and Räsänen said they are optimistic for a positive outcome; Price said they are prepared to appeal the case if they are convicted.