FINLAND – On March 30, 2022, the District Court of Helsinki acquitted Bishop Juhana Pohjola of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (ELMDF) and Finnish Member of Parliament Päivi Räsänen on all charges. The two had been charged with hate crimes for articulating historic Christian teaching on human sexuality.
“This is not only a victory for us but for freedom of speech and religion in Finland and beyond,” said Bishop Pohjola in a statement after the ruling. “In seeking to criminalize Christian teaching on sexuality, the prosecution cast a shadow of fear over society. It was important to receive a strong signal from the District Court defending our fundamental rights as citizens and Christians.”
“I would like to thank all of those who have provided support and encouragement during this long process,” Bishop Pohjola continued. “There has been a tremendous outpouring of intercession from all around the world. Ultimately, this is a spiritual battle and a matter concerning the Gospel of Christ.”
The trial and its implications for religious freedom in Finland drew worldwide attention. Dr. Räsänen had been charged for authoring a 2004 booklet which discusses the Church’s traditional teaching on sexuality, in the context of the then-ongoing debate in Finland on the legalization of same-sex marriage. Bishop Pohjola was charged for his role as publisher. Dr. Räsänen also faced two other charges for public statements on sexuality, including for a tweet in which she included a photograph of a Bible verse.
The court proceedings drew particular concern, as the prosecution focused on examining the defendants doctrinal beliefs—a “conflation of juridical and theological argumentation,” in Bishop Pohjola’s words, which seemed worryingly out of place in a civil court.
In a unanimous decision, the three judge-panel of the District Court of Helsinki ruled that Dr. Räsänen and Bishop Pohjola be acquitted on all charges, declaring that “it is not the role of the district court to interpret biblical concepts.” It further ordered the state to pay the legal costs of the defence.
The Prosecutor General, who decided to press charges despite an initial investigation by Helsinki police which determined no laws had been broken, had been seeking steep fines against Dr. Räsänen and Bishop Pohjola. The prosecution had asked the court to fine Dr. Räsänen the maximum criminal victim compensation possible—equivalent to 120 days of personal income. Bishop Pohjola faced the possibility of a fine equivalent to 60 days of personal income. The ELMDF’s legal entity, meanwhile, was threatened with a corporate fine of €10,000 for publishing the booklet.
The court’s decision to acquit was welcomed by the International Lutheran Council (ILC), which has covered the situation in Finland extensively. “There is a dangerous movement in western societies today to impose a progressive secular religion on others, at the expense of freedom of speech and religion,” said ILC General Secretary Timothy Quill. “This new orthodoxy seeks to stamp out all opposition, including those who uphold the traditional view of human sexuality, which is supported by both Holy Scripture and natural law. The proponents of the new orthodoxy may find today’s ruling a jarring speed bump to their agenda but not, I fear, a stop sign.”
“Thank God for the Helsinki District Court, which still respects the principles of freedom of speech and action, and responded with a unanimous, clear decision to acquit on all charges,” Dr. Quill continued. “And thank God for Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen, who have given a bold and graceful witness to both God’s Law and the saving proclamation of the Gospel of forgiveness in Christ. They are faithful examples to Christians the world over.”
After the prosecution brought charges against Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen in 2021, the ILC issued a public protest signed by the ecclesiastical leaders of 45 confessional Lutheran church bodies worldwide. It further sponsored a lecture tour by Bishop Pohjola to draw attention to the case and its implications for freedom of religion and freedom of expression. The ELMDF is a member of the ILC.
While the decision to acquit has been welcomed by many, the case is not necessarily over; the prosecution still has the opportunity to appeal the decision to Helsinki’s Court of Appeal.