Two Christian leaders in Finland stood trial in Helsinki on Jan. 24 for publicly stating the Bible’s teachings on sex and marriage. Longtime Member of Parliament Paivi Rasanen and Lutheran Bishop Juhana Pohjola defended in court their decision to write and publish, respectively, a pamphlet explaining Christian teachings about sex and marriage.
In the trial’s opening arguments, which will resume on Feb. 14, Finnish prosecutors described quotations from the Bible as “hate speech.” Finland’s top prosecutor’s office essentially put the Bible on trial, an unprecedented move for a secular court, said Paul Coleman, a human rights lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom International who is assisting in the Finns’ legal defense and was present during Monday’s trial.
“The prosecutor began the day by trying to explain that this case was not about beliefs and the Bible. She then, and I’m not kidding, she then proceeded to quote Old Testament Bible verses,” Coleman said in a phone interview with The Federalist after the trial concluded for the day. “Trial attorneys, Finnish trial attorneys who have been in and out of court every day for years, said they didn’t think the Bible had ever been read out like that in a prosecution.”
Never before has a Finnish court had to decide whether quoting the Bible is a crime. Human rights observers consider this case an important marker for whether Western governments’ persecution of citizens for their speech and beliefs increases.
Coleman said “it was very surreal” to watch Rasanen, a medical doctor and pastor’s wife, and Pohjola, whom The Federalist interviewed in person in November, be grilled by secular prosecutors about details of Christian theology in a secular court. The two Christians had the opportunity to essentially preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in court.
“The majority of the day was about the role of the Bible in society,” said Coleman, an Englishman who listened with the aid of translators. “The prosecutor on more than one occasion questioned whether we in Finland follow Finnish law or the Bible, as if these things are so inherently contradictory that you have to choose one.”
The long day in court concluded with the prosecutor cross-examining Pohjola about his theology, Coleman said, “asking his interpretation of the Bible, just straight-up theology.” The prosecutor even asked the bishop, apparently without awareness of the historical import of this question, “Does he follow God’s law or does he follow Finnish law?” Coleman noted with astonishment.
“I would characterize the day as a modern-day Inquisition or heresy trial,” Coleman concluded. “And the heresy was that Paivi and Bishop Juhana were on trial against the new sexual orthodoxy of the day.”
Christianity is the state religion of Finland, but Finland’s state church has repeatedly distanced itself from historic Christian teachings that are clearly stated in the Bible. Rasanen’s criticism of Finland’s state church sponsoring a Pride parade, by posting a tweet with a picture of Bible verses on it, is one of the three charges being pressed against her.
The one charge that applies to both Christians stems from a theological booklet Rasanen wrote in 2004, published by Pohjola. Christians define marriage as the lifelong union of exclusively one man and one woman and consider only sex within those bounds as a moral good.
“The booklet stands on the Christian understanding of human being,” Pohjola said in court, according to an on-site Finnish reporter, Danielle Miettinen. “Sin affects every human being to the core. But the grace of God is also universal. He wants to forgive the sins of every human being.”
The booklet Rasanen wrote, called “Male and Female God Created,” also affirms Christian teachings about the preciousness of every single human life to God. Christians also believe in complete human equality in both the sinfulness of every human, and God’s forgiveness of every sin. Rasanen and Pohjola have repeatedly publicly affirmed that they are not motivated by hate, but by love in stating the historic, orthodox Christian faith.
“The saving gospel of Jesus Christ has been given to us in the Bible,” Rasanen told reporters outside court Monday, according to Miettinen. “The cross of Christ shows the greatest love for both heterosexuals and homosexuals.”
U.S. lawmakers, churches worldwide, and international human rights organizations criticized the trial as blatant religious persecution and restriction of the natural human right of free speech.
“We are greatly concerned that the use of Finnish law is tantamount to a secular blasphemy law,” wrote U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Florida; Josh Hawley, R-Missouri; James Lankford, R-Oklahoma; Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma; and Mike Braun, R-Indiana, in a statement. “It could open the door for prosecution of other devout Christians, Muslims, Jews and adherents of other faiths for publicly stating their religious beliefs.”
U.S. House members said in a public letter that the Finnish government’s prosecutions of these Christians for their religious beliefs “raise serious questions regarding the extent of Finland’s commitment to protect religious freedom for its citizens.”
The Finnish law being used to prosecute the two Christians has growing numbers of international counterparts, including in many U.S. states and cities. They are often called sexual orientation and gender identity laws. Such laws penalize the natural rights of free speech and religious exercise, which nearly all Western and democratic countries claim to guarantee to their citizens.
Coleman also noted that these speech crimes laws are also typically vague, which makes them ripe for prosecutorial abuse.
“Hate speech laws are so vaguely worded, they’re so subjective, they are ripe for arbitrary enforcement,” he said. “They are set up for people to pick and choose. If you have enough speech to go on—and in this case you have two decades from a public official. In this case, the police recommended not to prosecute but they overrode that. So you can pick and choose and find anything.”
If convicted, Rasanen and Pohjola face fines or up to two years in prison.
Because of the amount of material the prosecutor presented from combing over Rasanen’s 20 years of public statements and media appearances, the trial went long on Jan. 24 and will have to conclude on Feb. 14, Coleman told The Federalist. The court’s decision will be released between two and four weeks after that.