Law professors and scholars are calling on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to pressure the State Department to sanction Finland’s prosecutor general for prosecuting a Christian politician who shared her biblical beliefs on sexuality and marriage.
In an open letter published by Real Clear Politics last Friday, professors from Ivy League institutions like Harvard University, Yale University and Princeton University spoke out in defense of Päivi Räsänen and Bishop Juhana Pohjola. They both face criminal charges related to Räsänen expressing her Christian views on marriage.
Räsänen, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, could face up to six years in prison after being charged with three counts of ethnic agitation related to statements she made expressing her beliefs pertaining to human sexuality and marriage.
Räsänen is the former chair of the Christian Democrats and a former interior minister who has served in Parliament for seven terms. The mother of five, who is married to a pastor and Bible college principal, has been under police investigation since June 2019.
She publicly voiced her opinion on marriage in a 2004 booklet on sexual ethics, describing marriage as between one man and one woman. She also expressed her views on a 2019 radio show and tweeted church leadership on the matter.
Prosecutors determined that her previous statements disparage and discriminate against LGBT individuals and foment intolerance and defamation. The mother of five is adamant that her expressions are “legal and should not be censored.”
In their open letter, the professors argue that the prosecution of the politician for her remarks could “compel Finland’s clergy and lay religious believers to choose between prison and abandoning teachings of their various faiths.”
“The charges against Dr. Räsänen stem from her authorship of a 2004 booklet entitled, Male and Female He Created Them: Homosexual Relationships Challenge the Christian Concept of Humanity, published by the Luther Foundation,” they wrote. “In the booklet, Dr. Räsänen argues that homosexual activity should be recognized by the church as sinful based on the teachings of the Hebrew Bible and Christian scripture.”
“Second, the Prosecutor General has charged the Bishop-Elect of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland, Rev. Dr. Juhana Pohjola, with one count of ethnic agitation for publishing Dr. Räsänen’s booklet,” the letter continues.
“The Prosecutor General’s pursuit of these charges against a prominent legislator and bishop sends an unmistakable message to Finns of every rank and station: no one who holds to the traditional teachings of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and several other religions on questions of marriage and sexual morality will be safe from state harassment should they, like Bishop Pohjola and Dr. Räsänen, express their moral and religious convictions.”
The letter argues that the prosecutions “constitute serious human rights abuses” because they violate Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 10 of the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights. Those documents affirm the right of an individual “to manifest his religion or belief in teaching.”
The professors urged commissioners serving on the congressionally-mandated independent commission tasked with advising the U.S. government on international religious freedom matters to urge Secretary of State Antony Blinken to sanction Finland Prosecutor General Raija Toiviainen because of “a gross violation of human rights.”
The letter’s signatories include Princeton University law professor Robert P. George, Harvard University’s Learned Hand Professor of Law Emerita Mary Ann Glendon and Harvard constitutional law professor Adrian Vermeule.
Other signatories include: Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution; Middlebury College political science professor Keegan Callanan; Yale University history and religious studies professor Carlos Eire; Princeton University math professor Sergiu Klainerman; Princeton University international studies professor John B. Londregan; Harvard University African American studies lecturer Jacqueline C. Rivers; and attorney David Rivkin of the law firm BakerHostetler.
The signatories argue that Räsänen’s prosecution isn’t merely “mundane applications of a European-style ‘hate speech’ law.”
“No reasonable balance of the goods of public order, civil equality, and religious liberty can ever support this suppression of the right to believe and express one’s beliefs. The prosecutions are straightforward acts of oppression,” they write.
“To uphold the internationally recognized rights of freedom of expression and religious liberty, the United States must now respond to the abuses in Finland as it has recently responded to other violations of religious liberty in non-western nations.”
The letter points to how the U.S. government designated a Chinese government official as a human rights abuser for “his involvement in the detention and interrogation of Falun Gong practitioners for practicing their beliefs.”
“Prosecutor General Toiviainen’s status as a European official must not shield her from sanctions for her abuse of traditionalist Christians in Finland,” the letter argues.
In addition, the letter urges USCIRF to pressure Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to designate Toiviainen for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows for sanctions to be placed on foreign officials believed to be responsible or complicit in severe human rights abuse.
“Prosecutor General Toiviainen and any line prosecutors who choose to assist her plainly meet this description,” the professors argue.
The letter contends that there is “no statue of limitations on human rights violations of this magnitude.”
“Should calls by USCIRF to designate and sanction Prosecutor General Toiviainen and her accomplices fall on deaf ears, we respectfully request that USCIRF not simply let the matter drop,” they conclude.
Räsänen is represented by ADF International, which argues that her case is about the freedom to express religious beliefs in the public square without the fear of government investigation.
In a March statement, Räsänen said that she did not threaten, slander or insult anyone and that her comments were all “based on the Bible’s teachings on marriage and sexuality.” She vowed to defend her right to “confess” her faith.
“The more Christians keep silent on controversial themes, the narrower the space for freedom of speech gets,” she said.
Earlier this month, the European Evangelical Alliance voiced its support for Räsänen, asking if the prosecutor is “attempting to redefine human rights law.”
"Freedom of expression gives the right for anyone to share their opinion," EEA General Secretary Thomas Bucher wrote in a statement. "The right to freedom of expression exists to legally protect those that express views which may offend, shock or disturb others."