On trial for a Bible tweet
Finnish MP’s case could set a precedent for “unacceptable” beliefs across Europe
Alongside her bishop, Finnish Member of Parliament Päivi Räsänen is standing criminal trial for expressing Christian beliefs on marriage and sexuality.
The case began as too many of today’s assaults on free speech do: with a tweet. Räsänen is a member of the Lutheran state church. When she discovered that her church had become an official sponsor of the Pride parade in 2019, she questioned their decision by posting a picture of a Bible verse.
Then the police knocked on her door.
Since she was charged with hate speech, her prosecutors have unearthed more “evidence” of her misdeeds. They clipped a sound bite from a 2019 radio interview and dug up a church pamphlet she authored almost twenty years ago. For publishing this pamphlet for his congregation, Bishop Juhana Pohjola also faces trial.
As punishment for a tweet, an interview and a pamphlet, Räsänen may spend up to two years in prison. A longtime civil servant, medical doctor, mother of five and grandmother of seven, she has been under investigation since the summer of 2019. The police have summoned her repeatedly, subjecting her to hours of interrogations, including questions about her theological interpretations of Genesis and Romans.
“I could never have imagined, for example when I worked as Minister of Interior in charge of police, that I would be interrogated and asked these kind of questions in a police station,” Räsänen said. “I had heard about these kind of interrogations from Soviet times… I could never have imagined that it would happen in Finland.”
“Are you ready to renounce your writings?” the police challenged her at every interrogation. She refused.
The case may well be a watershed moment, not only in Finland but across Europe. According to Paul Coleman, the Executive Director of Alliance Defending Freedom, there is nothing distinctive about the Finnish law against hate speech — only the same nebulous vagueness found in UK law. This allows any motivated combination of activists, officers and lawyers to invent a crime with no victims, where the only harms involved are assumed or imagined.
The case threatens to set a dangerous precedent in Europe, for religious liberty as well as free speech. Christians in the UK are even now fighting for their right to such basic religious practices as wearing crosses or praying for each other. The Finland case tests whether governments can go so far as to criminalise Christians’ quoting from their holy texts when communicating with their own churches.
It is no exaggeration to say that a conviction would cross the line from restricting religious activity, as the Finnish prosecutors claim, to dictating what qualifies as an acceptable religious belief. “It is not necessary to take the Bibles away from libraries; it is still okay to cite them — but what is not okay is to agree with the Bible.” In a newspaper interview, the Prosecutor General compared the Bible to Mein Kampf.
We will find ourselves parroting state-sanctioned speech
“The prosecutor is demanding a community fine of at least 10,000 euros from the Finnish Luther Foundation,” according to a live tweet from the trial. “She therefore wants to fine the religious community for their own teaching.” Once the government makes illegal the teaching of certain ideas, not only in the public square but within a religious community, the state becomes the adjudicator of what one may believe or not believe.
It is clear that the Finnish Prosecutor General wants to make an example of Räsänen. As in the case of the “non-crime hate incidents” recently ruled unlawful in the UK, the pressure of police investigation alone has a chilling effect on speech. A full-scale criminal trial can only nurture a climate of fear and self-censorship.
Räsänen wrote the pamphlet in 2004 — before the law she is being prosecuted under was even in force. Could any of us survive a top prosecutor combing through almost two decades worth of things we’ve said, confident that every single sentence was inoffensive? If any recorded statement is fair game, and the beliefs espoused are suddenly criminalized, the average person will surely be intimidated into retreating from public discourse altogether.
Once we are no longer free to tweet unpopular opinions — or even unpopular Bible verses — we will find ourselves living in an Orwellian future of parroting state-sanctioned speech. Recognising that censoring and policing speech with criminal sanctions isn’t in anyone’s interest, even those opposed to Räsänen’s views have joined in defending her freedom to be able to express them.
“The more we are silent, the narrower grows the space for freedom of speech and religion,” says Räsänen. “If I am convicted, the worst consequence is not a fine or even prison, it would be the censorship on speech and writings — not only my booklet, but thousands like it.”
To support Päivi Räsänen’s case, visit ADFInternational.org/
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