The judges of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) have ruled unanimously that a feminist who simulated aborting Jesus on the altar of the Parisian church of La Madeleine, bare-breasted, was exercising her “freedom of expression.”

In an Oct. 11 decision, the ECHR condemned France for having pronounced a suspended prison sentence against Eloïse Bouton, a former member of the group Femen, for acts of sexual exhibition. 

Bouton entered the famous Parisian church topless in December 2013, covered in pro-abortion slogans, interrupting a rehearsal of Christmas carols. 

As local media reported [warning: link shows a graphic image], the feminist stood in front of the altar, wearing a blue veil to mock the Virgin Mary, arms open in a cross with pieces of animal liver supposed to represent a fetus. She then mimed an “abortion” of “Jesus” before urinating on the ground in front of the astounded faithful.

“Christmas is cancelled!” Femen wrote on its Facebook page following the desecration. “From the Vatican to Paris. The international relay of Femen against the anti-abortion campaigns led by the Catholic lobby continues, the holy mother Eloïse has just aborted the embryo of Jesus on the altar of the Madeleine.”

A complaint filed by the church’s priest led to the conviction of the activist, a judgment confirmed on appeal as well as before the Court of Cassation, the highest judicial court in France. 

According to the ECHR, however, the French courts violated article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights about freedom of expression since the prison sentence was “imposed in the context of a political or public debate.”

“In the present case, the sole purpose of the applicant’s action, for which no insulting or hateful conduct was alleged, was to contribute to the public debate on women’s rights,” the judges wrote in their ruling released Oct. 13. 

The European court further noted that the French courts “limited themselves to examining the question of the nudity of [the Femen activist’s] breasts in a place of worship, in isolation from the overall performance of which it formed part, without taking into consideration, in the balance of the interests involved, the meaning given to her behaviour by the applicant.”

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The ECHR sentenced France to pay Bouton a total of 9,800 euros (about $9,584) — 2,000 euros for moral damages and 7,800 euros for costs and expenses — triggering indignant reactions among Catholic commentators.

In an opinion piece published on the Catholic website Aleteia, essayist Blanche Streb wrote: “To attack the symbols of Christianity, even if it is to recognize its strength, is above all to forget what human rights and modern democracy owe to Christianity: the inalienable dignity of the human being.” 

Grégor Puppinck, director of the European Centre for Law and Justice, criticized the decision as ostensible support of anti-Christian blasphemy, lamenting that “it is becoming a habit at the ECHR to defend these attacks in churches and against the Church.”

The Bouton v. France case was, Puppinck suggested, indicative of a “double standard.” 

Pointing to concerns previously raised in an in-depth report, the French jurist said: “The court would never have supported [Bouton’s] macabre display if it had taken place in a mosque or in the precincts of a courthouse.” 

A similar case in Germany on Dec. 25, 2013, led to the conviction of another Femen activist who claimed “freedom of expression” in her defense. A Cologne court found Josephine Witt guilty of “disturbance of religious practice” after she attempted to jump onto the altar of the Cologne Cathedral in a state of undress with the words “I am God” painted on her chest.