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Never take it for granted

Religious freedom—the freedom not only to believe and worship according to one’s conscience but also to proclaim publicly and faithfully what God’s Word clearly teaches is never something that we can take for granted. In the United States, religious freedom is protected and guaranteed by the Constitution. But at some point, it is likely that this freedom of religious expression will be challenged, not just in words but in a court of law.

That’s exactly what has been happening in Finland. In 2021, the prosecutor general of Finland brought criminal charges of “ethnic agitation” against a Lutheran pastor, Rev. Juhana Pohjola, and a former member of the Finnish Parliament, Dr. Päivi Räsänen. They were accused of incitement of hatred against a group of people (the homosexual community) because they publicly proclaimed and taught the biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality.

Before the case went to trial, leaders of Lutheran churches around the world sent a document to the Finnish authorities. That document was signed by the president of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) as well as by presidents of partner churches of the LCMS. The presidents of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and our sister churches in Europe also signed the letter. Entitled “A Protest and Call for Free Religious Speech in Finland,” the letter noted that international human rights laws, as well as the constitution of Finland itself, “robustly protect the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression.” After presenting clear and powerful arguments in favor of religious expression, the letter concluded, “Therefore, we the undersigned, condemn the unjustifiable criminal prosecution of Rev. Dr. Juhana Pohjola and Dr. Päivi Räsänen M.P. for their public expressions of faith. We call on the Finnish authorities to immediately discontinue their efforts to punish Rev. Dr. Juhana Pohjola and Dr. Päivi Räsänen, to cease the prosecutions of persons for the public expression of their faith, and to recommit to protecting the freedom of religion and freedom of speech in Finland.”

Despite the international demands, the prosecutor general of Finland did not back down. The trial was held in March 2022. In what appeared to be a victory for religious freedom, Rev. Dr. Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen were acquitted of the charges.

But that victory was short-lived. The Finnish prosecutor appealed the decision, and both were tried again. A second court case was held in August 2023. Thankfully, the Helsinki Court of Appeal dismissed all charges last November. Unfortunately, the prosecution can appeal a final time to the Finnish Supreme Court by Jan. 15, 2024.

Sad to say, Finland is not the only democratic nation in which this is happening. Similar court cases have been brought against Christian pastors in Great Britain and Canada. And given the fact that a number of states in the US have adopted “anti-hate speech” laws, it will not be surprising if similar cases appear here too.

We treasure the religious freedom that we enjoy in the US—the freedom not only to believe and worship according to our conscience but also to preach and teach the truth of God’s Word without the threat of government silencing or intimidation. That freedom is not something we can take for granted. As long as we enjoy the protection that has been in place, we need to testify boldly and faithfully to the truth of God’s Word. And when that freedom is threatened—and it likely will be—we need to be ready to say with the apostles, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20), regardless of the consequences.

Author: Mark Schroeder
Volume 111, Number 1
Issue: January 2024

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