The case of Päivi Räsänen, a Finnish MP prosecuted for her religious views, is attracting increasing international attention. And rightly so, because this lawsuit is a blow to the free expression of religious faith not only in Finland, but also for those beyond the borders of this country.
Finland’s public prosecutor charged Päivi Räsänen, a former doctor now a member of parliament, with three counts of “ethnic agitation” in April. These accusations imply that Räsänen should be considered a threat to society. Yet the mere instances of religious expression behind the accusations hardly “agitate” anyone – a term that is itself open to vague and subjective interpretation.
In June 2019, Räsänen took to social media to question the decision of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland to partner with Helsinki’s “Pride 2019” parade, and her tweet featured an image of Romans 1: 24-27. It sparked online controversy and – five months later – a police investigation. No charges were filed following the initial investigation, and a police statement said Räsänen’s social media posting was protected by freedom of religion and freedom of speech enshrined in the constitution. Finnish. However, Finnish Attorney General Raija Toiviainen overturned the finding and opened a criminal investigation.
Räsänen would again be investigated, this time regarding a pamphlet he was asked to write in 2004 regarding his church’s teaching on sexuality titled “Male and Female He Created Them: The same-sex relationships challenge the Christian concept of humanity. Comments she made on television and radio about homosexuality were also investigated. In April 2021, the Attorney General brought three criminal charges against Räsänen for the 2019 tweet, comments on a 2019 radio show, and the 2004 pamphlet.
In this case, two essential and complementary human rights due to every person are threatened: freedom of religion and freedom of expression.
For peacefully expressing his religious beliefs regarding marriage and human sexuality, Räsänen faces years in prison. These lawsuits have set a dangerous precedent for Finnish believers who hold traditional Christian, Jewish or Islamic teachings on the family. While the government can punish a prominent political leader for her religious speech, no Finn is safe to peacefully express their beliefs.
Core international human rights standards – including treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Finland has ratified – protect against precisely this kind of persecution. Article 18 recognizes that everyone has the right to express their religious beliefs and teachings in public and in private.
The United States has a long tradition of speaking out against serious violations of religious freedom occurring around the world and calling on other nations to provide strong religious freedom protections to their citizens. The fact that Finland is a Western democracy should not exempt its government from scrutiny. Tony Perkins, who is a commissioner with the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said the commission is seeking additional information from Finnish officials about the case.
The United States should hold Finland to internationally recognized human rights standards, as we would other countries that imprison people for their beliefs. If the freedoms of religion and speech only allow the expression of ideas that are not controversial, then the people of Finland don’t really have those freedoms.
Freedom of expression means having the right to express one’s religious beliefs, even if they are unpopular. In the interest of respecting and preserving his country’s constitutional protections for freedom of speech and religion, Attorney General Toiviainen should drop the charges against Räsänen. The rest of the free world should encourage him to do so.
The world will witness the trial of Päivi Räsänen. His behavior in court will speak volumes about the level of religious persecution that might be possible in the West. One thing is certain: violations of religious freedom must be condemned wherever they occur. No one should fear imprisonment for posting a Bible verse on social media – anywhere, ever.