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Finland is the bellwether for religious liberty in Europe




At the end of March 2022, Finnish member of Parliament Päivi Räsänen and Bishop Juhana Pohjola of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland were acquitted on charges of hate crimes—the apparent end to a trial that had drawn widespread international attention and expressions of concern over the erosion of religious freedom in Finland.

Of course, the legal challenges for the two aren't really over. On April 30, the prosecutor general formally appealed the decision of the District Court of Helsinki. That sets the stage for round two in a battle that could last many years and ultimately end up before the European Court of Human Rights.

Dr. Räsänen and Bishop Pohjola were charged over the 2004 publication of a booklet that presents historic Christian teaching on sexuality—the former as the author of the work and the latter as the publisher. But while the booklet's theological critique of same-sex marriage was unremarkable upon its publication, the intervening years have seen a dramatic shift in Finnish opinion on the subject. As late as 2010, only 45% of Finns approved the legalization of same-sex marriage, according to the European Union's Eurobarometer. By 2019, that number had climbed to 74% (same-sex marriage was legalized in Finland in 2017).

That change in public opinion is not surprising; similar shifts have taken place throughout much of the Western world. But what is surprising has been the speed with which those holding contrary opinions in Finland have been subjected to state-sanctioned persecution.

In response to a 2019 complaint, Helsinki police opened an investigation into Dr. Räsänen and Bishop Pohjola. By that time, the booklet had been online for 15 years. The police ultimately concluded no laws had been broken, but the prosecutor general decided to launch her own investigation. She laid hate charges against the two for the booklet in 2021, with the Finnish M.P. facing two additional charges: one for public comments during a radio debate and another for a tweet in which she criticized the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland—the state church, of which Dr. Räsänen is a member—for its support of Helsinki Pride. The prosecutor general alleged that these statements constituted incitement to hatred against homosexual people.

Dr. Räsänen and Bishop Pohjola argued they had done no such thing. "As a Christian, I do not want to and cannot discriminate against or despise anyone created by God," Bishop Pohjola explained when he was first charged. "Every human being, created by God and redeemed by Christ, is equally precious."

This is basic Christian teaching: All people share inherent worth as those created and loved by God. But also central to Christian teaching is the concept of sin—the idea that human nature is fundamentally flawed as a result of the Fall, that we are all sinners in need of salvation. For this reason, Christians, on the basis of Scripture and natural reason, identify certain behaviors as sin—not in order to denigrate others (we are all sinners) but in order to reveal our need for a Savior. After all, as Dr. Räsänen writes in the booklet under question: "If we deny people the right to feel guilt for their sin, we also deprive them of the joy and assurance of the Gospel. The certainty of heaven rests on Christ's assured atonement for our very real sins and on His resurrection from the dead."



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