Continuing Challenges to Religious Freedom in Europe and America

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The case of Paivi Rasanen, a Finnish member of Parliament being prosecuted for hate speech because she quoted the Bible on homosexuality, has highlighted the continuing threat to freedom of religion and speech in Europe. Rasanen spoke to a luncheon sponsored by the Family Research Council at the 2022 International Religious Freedom Summit on June 30. This was followed by a panel discussion of persons directly involved in the struggle for religious freedom in the United States and Canada.

Rasanen was introduced by Andrew Brunson, an American pastor imprisoned in Turkey from October 2016 until October 2018 by Turkey’s current Islamist-leaning government. Brunson noted first that Rasanen “was charged with hate speech simply for expressing widely held Biblical beliefs.” A tweet Rasanen posted was the basis for the charges. The tweet quoted verses from Romans chapter 1 and criticized her church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. for partnering in an LGBT pride parade. Police reviewed what she had said in recent years about homosexuality, and a booklet that she wrote in 2004 regarding human sexuality. He noted that Rasanen is the mother of five children and ten grandchildren, a medical doctor, has served in the Finnish Parliament since 1995, and was Finland’s Minister of Interior from 2011 to 2015. She is thus quite a prominent member of Finnish society, and her prosecution, along (originally) with that of a Finnish bishop of Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland, represents a ramping up of the attack on religious freedom. Brunson observed that she was charged with “hate speech for things that are in fact not hateful and hate speech for things she in fact had never said at all.”

Rasanen was unanimously acquitted of all charges in March, 2022, but the prosecutor has appealed the verdict. Brunson also said that members of the Finnish media observed that Rasanen “had not said a harsh word.” But he said that pressure against religious freedom will continue in the West and in the United States. Rasanen could escape penalty by apologizing for her beliefs, but she has stood firm for the Christian faith. He said that there will be Christians who will also be forced to “compromise or stand” in the future. He believes that “her courage will be contagious.”

Rasanen observed that while she had been “a member of Parliament for 27 years,” the last three years “have been surprising.” She said she has always been “open about my faith,” but never expected to be in her current situation. She said that she faces two years in prison if convicted, but that the category of crime for which she is charged is a category of “war crimes and crimes against humanity.” If convicted of the charges brought by the prosecutor, she would have her social media postings and publications banned. She said that even without a conviction, the legal process itself is intimidating, and “has caused self-censorship among Bible believing Christians” in Finland.

On the positive side, believers have been moved “to pray and trust on God’s Word.” She said that “many Christians in Finland have wakened up to defend faith and religious freedom.” In particular, “one thousand people gathered in front of our Parliament house … to show strong support for freedom, for free speech.” The confessional International Lutheran Council issued a strong statement for free religious speech in Finland. Further, “the Finnish Association for Freedom of Speech and Religion was founded last year to support the [i.e., Rasanen’s] case, and probably similar cases in [the] future.” She also acknowledged the vital support of the ADF International in her case.

Rasanen acknowledged that the position of Christians in a post-Christian society “is difficult, both in discussions, whether we are thinking of pro-life issue, protection of life, both in the beginning and the end of life, or duties related to marriage and sexuality.” Such terms as “father” and “mother” are universal in humanity, and yet are now being questioned.

At issue in her case, she said, is whether the teachings of the Bible can be publicly affirmed in Finland. She said the police closely questioned her about her interpretation of the Bible, particularly the Epistle to the Romans. What was the message of Romans? What is the meaning of sin?, she was asked. Rasanen very reasonably maintains that the conflict is not just about sexuality, but about the Christian doctrine of sin, and if this is rejected, then “the whole core of Christian faith is made empty: the precious sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for the sake of everyone’s sins and the way He opened into eternity.”

People on social media joked that she was “once again going to have Bible study on the police station.” She said that in an interview with Finland’s attorney general published in Finland’s largest newspaper, the attorney general said that if Rasanen is convicted, Bibles and discussions about the Bible would continue to be legal, but “what is crucial, is whether one agrees with the Bible.” But she said that “for Christians, the Bible is the Word of God, and we must have the possibility to agree with it.” Rasanen said she is glad that her belief has been widely disseminated in Finland.

Although Rasanen was acquitted of all charges in March 2022, the prosecutor has been given permission to proceed with an appeal in the “Bible trial” case. She said that while “it’s all in God’s hands,” she is willing to defend freedom of religion and expression all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights. The more people keep silence about the message of the Bible, the stronger the forces of censorship against it will become, she believes. In cases such as hers, “we need people to speak for us.” Rasanen believes, however, that we are in the world “for just such a time as this.”   

In a subsequent panel, moderated by Tony Perkins, President of FRC, Perkins said that it is difficult for western countries such as the United States to advance religious freedom internationally, when we are not respecting it domestically.

Perkins first introduced James Coates, pastor of GraceLife Church in Edmonton, Alberta. Coates did not restrict his church to 15% occupancy, as was required by Alberta’s coronavirus restrictions, and so was prosecuted. He joined the panel virtually, since vaccine restrictions prevented him from being physically present. Also on the panel was Mike McClure, Pastor at Calvary Chapel in San Jose, California. He was fined four million dollars for having in-person church services. This case is still being pursued by Santa Clara County, although the Supreme Court ruled in favor of in-person worship in the Diocese of Brooklyn case in November 2020. Completing the panel was Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, a long-time advocate of international religious freedom.

Perkins asked Coates to relate the details of his case. Coates said that in the face of severe restrictions on public worship, his church had “to wrestle with the tension of Romans chapter 13 and the command to meet together as a local body of  believers.” He said that they ultimately concluded that the state regulations “were an overreach and were beginning to infringe on the authority of Christ over his church.” So they decided to open the church and let “our people decide whether or not they would come.” The church made a firm decision for this, and then a second declared coronavirus emergency began in the fall of 2020. “And from that point on” the complaints brought against the church resulted in attention from the police. The government then “used every means possible to bring us into submission.” In particular, it tried to destroy any favorable public perception of the church and took the church to court. Coates was arrested and imprisoned twice. But the church remained convinced that “to comply with the governing authority would be to surrender the headship of Christ over the church.” And so the church was kept open, regardless of the penalty.

As for the present situation, Coates said that he is personally liable for violating the coronavirus legislation, but there is also corporate liability. Personal liability is relatively minor (a $1,200 fine), more serious charges have been dropped. The church, however, faces the possibility of tens of thousands of dollars in fines. He did say that the church was not optimistic that the court would rule in its favor. Pleading guilty would result in a lesser fine. But the church is determined to maintain its integrity in asserting the supremacy of Christ over the commands of the state and pay whatever fine there might be.

Perkins then asked McClure if the story Coates related sounded familiar. McClure said that his church experienced “almost the exact same story.” He said that a restraining order was issued against the church after it started resuming in person worship. Potential fines against the church have been lowered from $4.2 million to $2.8 million. The case has moved into federal court, with a court date next year. Perkins noted that like many churches, Calvary Chapel initially closed at the beginning of the pandemic, and then concluded that the shutdown was continuing for more than “health issues,” and re-opened. McClure said that the leadership prayed and concluded that obedience to Christ required re-opening. He noted that Scripture says that Christians are not to forsake gathering together, “as is the manner of some.” McClure also said many new people came to church after re-opening, and his church concluded that they couldn’t “stop helping people.”

Perkins observed that some government officials who came to enforce orders of the state against the church were moved by the church’s message, “and began to be very apologetic for the system that was pursuing” the church. McClure noted that in fact three “county lawyers” have quit their positions over the case.

Perkins next turned to Congressman Chris Smith, noting that he is “probably the longest serving member in the House that has been a champion of human rights.” Smith was asked about the religious persecution “now coming to the West.”  Smith said that on his first foreign visit in pursuit of religious freedom – to the Soviet Union in 1982 – he heard constantly that “you can worship, but you cannot engage in any kind of activity” which involves living out your faith in the wider world, “and even worship was circumscribed.” He cited Alexandr Solzhenitsyn to say that one can easily tell “right and wrong when you’re in that prison cell.” It’s harder, Smith said, when you live in a democracy. Democracies in Europe and North America are moving in the wrong direction. This primarily involves the acceptance and support of homosexuality, and related issues of marriage, adoption, and the move for legal requirements that threaten religious freedom and liberty of conscience. Not only is the Biden Administration moving against conscience protections, but it is not enforcing laws that protect conscience. In particular, religious exemptions from the vaccine mandate in the U.S. military are rarely granted. Perkins again observed that this “makes it very difficult to promote this idea abroad if we’re not living it here.”

Perkins then asked Pastor Coates of GraceLife Church if he would do over again what he has done since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Coates said “absolutely.” There is now a “reprieve” from the shutdown. He said he was glad that “we’ve blazed a trail for other churches in Canada the next time around.” Additionally, “there’s more churches now in network with one another, more pastors in contact with one another” because of the shutdown. He said regarding everything he has done with respect to the shutdown “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Perkins observed that Calvary Chapel congregation “has actually grown since the pandemic.” He asked Pastor McClure if the adversity that Christian churches have experienced “is just a precursor, a test of what may be yet to come?” McClure said that he thinks “what’s coming is going to be far worse.” He believes that the true conflict is spiritual, not political. Powerful forces in society actively oppose religious freedom for traditional believers. In the case of his particular church, faced with loss of church and personal property, he had to decide, and all Christians must decide, if “we’re going to follow the Lord Jesus Christ.” McClure said that he and his wife found great freedom in their resolve, since their absolute commitment is to Christ, while their possessions are temporary. In the end, he said, “it’s the righteous that are going to prevail.” Christ will come, he said “with his reward.”

Smith observed that in a democracy, there is a much greater ability to “fight back” against secularist oppression. Participation in politics is an important part of fighting back. At the present time, the opportunities that now exist for prohibiting abortion are one avenue to political involvement. Currently crucial as well is protecting the Senate filibuster, which ensures that radical legislation passed by the narrow Democratic majority in the House does not pass the Senate.

The common thread in both Rasanen’s hate speech case in Finland and the church closure cases discussed in the United States and Canada is the idea that Christianity is something dangerous to society. As noted, churches closed voluntarily on the government determination of a great danger of communicable disease. It was reasonably doubted in the early stages of the pandemic, when a hard lockdown was ordered in the majority of states, that the crisis was a modern version of the Black Death. After weeks of lockdown, Evangelical churches such as those of Coates and McClure re-opened, finding the state requirements for shutdown to be unreasonable, and therefore not required by love of neighbor, so that the Biblical command for religious assembly was again binding. This assessment of danger was later vindicated in court.

Much closer to the mark was the observation of ADF International’s Lorcan Price, who reported that in the prosecution’s closing arguments against Rasanen, it was claimed that the use of the word “sin” could be “harmful.” “What’s essentially being said here, is if somebody finds what you’re saying upsetting or offensive … then that itself can become a crime,” he said. Freedom from offense – the right not to be offended – is the real claim being made against Christianity and Christian churches. As the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission recently noted in its summation of the case, Rasanen’s party in Finland, the Christian Democrats holds that “Human dignity is based on a person’s being, not on their doing or abilities. It is priceless, regardless of gender, age, position, religion, origin of birth or other criteria.” Hurt feelings cannot properly overrule claims of truth and reality. That is wrong in itself, and an invitation to tyranny.

Perkins concluded by saying that “religious freedom for all people,” for which FRC advocates, is “fundamental for our country.” It is the attack on that basic foundation of America which has caused in the intense polarization of politics. As Rasanen and the panelists so clearly explained, true followers of Christ must persevere in faithfulness, which may be rewarded with victory in our day, or may result in punishment, but which is required of all true disciples of Christ.