June 01, 2020

Two cases show that religious freedom is dwindling in Europe

By Andrea Gagliarducci
European Parliament in Strasbourg / Credit: Alan Holdren / CNA
European Parliament in Strasbourg / Credit: Alan Holdren / CNA

Conscientious objection and freedom of expression are under threat in Europe, as shown by two legal cases that made news last March. 

On March 12, the European Court for Human Rights declared “inadmissible” the application by two Swedish midwives who had refused to commit abortions.

At the end of March, news broke that a member of the Finnish Parliament and former minister for the Internal Affairs, Päivi Räsänen, is facing four police investigations because she sent a tweet questioning the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland’s sponsorship of the LGBT event "Pride 2019". 

Scandinavian Human Rights Lawyers represented both Grimmark and Steen.

Conscientious objection at risk

Ellinor Grimmark and Linda Steen are two Swedish midwives. Since they refused to perform abortions, they were denied employment in Sweden. 

In particular, Ellinor Grimmark asked for summer employment at the hospitals of Högland e di Ryhov in 2013. Even though both of the facilities were lacking midwives, Grimmark was denied employment since she had previously declared that she was not going to perform abortions because of her conscience and religious convictions. 

After she was denied unemployment, she appealed to the Swedish authority on discriminations, Diskrimineringsombudsmannen. Her appeal was rejected based on the fact that in Sweden, the performing of abortions is part of the midwives' tasks, so there would be no discrimination in denying a job if a midwife refuses to perform them. 

Linda Steen's case was similar: in 2015, she informed her employer of the women's clinic in Nyköping that she would be unable to assist in committing abortions and failed to be employed anymore. 

Both of them applied to the European Court for Human Rights. 

A 3-judge commission declared  the applications "inadmissible" on the basis of Article 9 of the European Convention for the Safeguarding of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. 

“The Court notes that the applicant's refusal to assist in abortions due to her religious faith and conscience constitutes such a manifestation of her religion,” the decisions read, “which is protected under Article 9 of the Convention. There was thus interference with her freedom of religion under Article 9 § 1 of the Convention.” 

The sentence continued that the interference was “prescribed by law since, under the Swedish law, an employee is under a duty to perform all work duties given to him or her.” 

The decision went on to say, “Sweden provides nationwide abortion services and therefore has a positive obligation to organize its health system in a way as to ensure that the effective exercise of freedom of conscience of health professionals in the professional context does not prevent the provision of such services.”

In the end, the court decision might lead to the notion that performing an abortion is part of the job description of a midwife. This ruling jeopardizes the right to work of all the European midwives who refuse to perform abortions because of their conscience. 

There is a possibility that the decision might be overturned in the future by decisions made by the Court in a higher chamber, composed of 7 or 17 justices. 

Robert Clarke, deputy director of ADF International, said right after the decision to be “very disappointed” because “a positive judgment from the Court would have been an important step in the protection of the right to freedom of conscience. Medical professionals should be able to work without being forced to choose between their deeply held convictions and careers.” 

“International law clearly protects the right to freedom of conscience. Nobody should be forced to decide between their profession and their conscience. Rather than forcing midwives and other medical professionals out of their profession, Sweden should look to safeguard their moral convictions,” said Paul Coleman, Executive Director of ADF International.

Freedom of expression

Päivi Räsänen, a member of the Finnish Parliament, faces four police investigations because of her position on homosexual relations. 

The first investigation started because of a tweet she posted in June 2019. In the tweet, Räsänen questioned the official sponsorship from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland to the LGBT event, Pride 2019. Räsänen attached to the tweet the image of the Bible passage Romans 1:24-27. 

The passage reads: “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised.”

After the tweet, Räsänen was subjected to a police interview in November 2019. 

The second investigation is about a pamphlet on human sexuality for a Christian foundation. The pamphlet was published over 16 years ago.

The police had already decided to drop the investigation into Räsänen's pamphlet and concluded that there were no grounds to proceed with a prosecution. However, the Prosecutor General reopened the criminal investigation after the publication of the tweet, and on March 2, 2020, Räsänen attended a police interview. 

During the interview, she said that she “never thought I would face a criminal investigation for sharing my deeply held beliefs. It came as a total surprise. As a Christian and a democratically elected Member of Parliament, I have often heard things with which I disagree – sometimes very strongly. At times, I have felt insulted. I believe the best response to this is more debate, not censorship.”

Räsänen has served as a Finnish Member of Parliament since 1995, was chair of the Christian Democrats from 2004-2015. She was Minister of the Interior from 2011 – 2015, a position that includes the responsibility for Church affairs in Finland.

Two additional investigations on Räsänen were later opened about interviews she granted to a tv program and a radio station.

The tv program was broadcast in 2018. Räsänen discussed with the presenter also her personal beliefs. 

The radio interview took place in 2019. The show was about "What would Jesus think about homosexuals?" and Räsänen intervened, sharing her opinions. 

ADF International, a faith-based legal advocacy organization for the defense of fundamental freedoms, is supporting Räsänen in the case.

According to Paul Coleman, executive director of ADF International, “These sorts of cases create a culture of fear and censorship and are becoming all too common throughout Europe.”

“In a free society,” Coleman said, “everyone should be allowed to share their beliefs without fear of censorship. This is the foundation of every free and democratic society. Criminalizing speech through so-called ‘hate-speech’ laws shuts down important public debates and poses a grave threat to our democracies.” 

The silent threat to religious freedom in Europe began a long time ago

The silent threat against religious freedom in Europe is not news. Already in 2014, a report of Aid to the Church in Need noted that the state of religious liberty was “worrying” and “worsening” in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. 

Published every two years, the report is a snapshot of the state of religious freedom in 196 countries. The 2014 report collected data on the state of religious freedom in the world from Oct. 2012 to June 2014.

The 2019 Report of the Observatory for the Intolerance against Christians listed a series of 325 incidents and hate crimes against Christians in Europe throughout 2018. 

Beyond the increasing acts of vandalism against churches, especially in France, the report listed 240 hate incidents from 14 European countries. The incidents were included in the OSCE's 2018 Hate Crimes Report, released on November 15, 2019. 

Ellen Fantini, the Observatory’s executive director, noted that “hate crimes constitute just a fraction of the undocumented pressures Christians face.”

She added: “We have seen Christian-run businesses financially ruined, street preachers arrested, Christians forced to choose between their moral values and their professions, Christian student groups and speakers silenced on campuses, asylum claims of Christian refugees arbitrarily denied, and parental rights trampled on by overreaching governmental interference. Fundamental rights are rendered meaningless if they cannot be freely exercised by all Europeans.”

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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