Swede’s Sermon on Gays: Bigotry or Free Speech?

Pastor Challenges Hate-Law Restrictions

STOCKHOLM — One Sunday in the summer of 2003, the Rev. Ake Green, a Pentecostal pastor, stepped into the pulpit of his small church in the southern Swedish village of Borgholm. There, the 63-year-old clergyman delivered a sermon denouncing homosexuality as “a deep cancerous tumor in the entire society” and condemning Sweden’s plan to allow gays to form legally recognized partnerships.

“Our country is facing a disaster of great proportions,” he told the 75 parishioners at the service. “Sexually twisted people will rape animals,” Green declared, and homosexuals “open the door to forbidden areas,” such as pedophilia.

With these words, which the local newspaper published at his request, Green ran afoul of Sweden’s strict laws against hate speech. He was indicted, convicted and sentenced to 30 days in jail. He remains free pending appeal.

U.S. law regulates what can be said about individuals, but it generally protects speech directed against groups, however harsh, allowing Ku Klux Klan leaders and neo-Nazis, for example, to state their ideologies publicly. But in Europe, laws banning such speech and similarly controversial symbols are common.

Nonetheless, Green’s case has triggered debate about the breadth of the Swedish law. Though many people here, including politicians and gay rights organizations, denounce him as intolerant, homophobic and a crackpot, others have sprung to his defense. These include members of the Christian Democratic Party, who contend his prosecution shows that free speech and religious freedom are under assault by a government too eager to protect minority rights.

Green has also found a following in the United States. The Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the District-based National Clergy Council, a network of 5,000 conservative Christian leaders, said the case had become “a cause celebre” among the Christian right because “there is a fear we are heading in a similar direction in this country.”

“What has been a traditional moral expression of the church has now been criminalized in a very modern, sophisticated, Western state, and that is extremely alarming,” Schenck said in an interview. “We believe strongly that homosexuality is sin, that it is an offense to God and that it is injurious to the individuals involved and to the society surrounding them. Why can’t we believe and say that, if they are free to believe and say the opposite?”

Kevin Cathcart, executive director of the gay rights group Lambda Legal, said that religious conservatives in the United States were “trying to twist” the Green case to their advantage, but that it was “not relevant to any actual debate about gay civil rights or the role of religion in the United States.”

U.S. gay rights groups “are not interested in forcing any churches to do anything they don’t want to do theologically,” Cathcart said. Evangelical Christians who think Green’s case is what the future holds for them “may be right,” he said, “but only if they move to Sweden.”

Germany has some of Europe’s strongest hate-speech laws, banning Nazi symbols and expressions of support for Adolf Hitler’s beliefs. Those measures grow from memories of Nazi rule in the 1930s and ’40s. Similar laws are found in many parts of Europe, reflecting social compacts that grant governments broad powers to regulate daily life. Prosecutors regularly indict people for statements and acts that would go unchallenged in the United States.

In France, the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen raised a furor this month by saying in an interview that Nazi Germany’s occupation of France was “not particularly inhumane.” The French justice minister launched an investigation to see if Le Pen could be criminally prosecuted.

After a British newspaper published a photo of Prince Harry wearing a Nazi uniform with a swastika armband at a party, the European Union’s justice commissioner, Franco Frattini, proposed considering a ban on the symbol in all of the bloc’s 25 countries.

Green, who is tall and lean with thinning white hair and a preacher’s reserve, says he sees himself as a crusader for free speech, although he said that was never his intention.

If his sentence is upheld on appeal, “it will diminish freedom of speech in Sweden, and that will mean we can’t teach everything the Bible says,” Green said in an interview at his attorney’s office in Stockholm. “They’ll go further and say we can’t preach about other things, either.”

On Wednesday last week, about 200 people gathered outside the courthouse in the southern city of Jonkoping to voice support for Green during his first appeal. Many who showed up were homosexuals who said while they disagreed vehemently with what the pastor said, they defended his right to say it.

Inside, prosecutor Kjell Yngvesson argued that Green had “expressed disdain for homosexuals as a group” and that the 30-day jail term should be lengthened.

In Sweden, Green’s case has focused particular attention on the government’s decision in 2002 to expand the country’s longstanding law against hate speech to cover gays and lesbians.

Critics of the prosecution say that while the pastor’s words might be hateful and extremist, the law was never intended to cover what a preacher said from the pulpit.

“My view is that one could argue about some words in his preaching, but he should not be put in jail for it,” said Mikael Oscarsson, a Christian Democratic member of parliament who met with religious groups in Washington last fall to publicize the case. “As a nation we have signed declarations saying one should have the right to speak and to express oneself,” he said. “This law goes against that right.”

Not so, say supporters of the law. In their view, the issue is stopping people — whether or not they are pastors — from promoting intolerance of gays and lesbians.

“Ake Green is only using his religion to say very bad things about gay and lesbian people as a group,” said Soren Andersson, president of the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights.

“If you look at his speech, and take away the word ‘gay’ and put in the word ‘Jew,’ you have a different picture.

“I don’t think it’s okay to say those things about Jews,” Andersson said. “But when it comes to gays and lesbians, it’s okay? Why? . . . This is about people — it’s about living people who are already treated very badly here.”

In the interview, Green said he had nothing personal against homosexuals. “I’m only preaching Christian love,” he said. “I’m saying God’s words. As a preacher, it’s my duty to say what’s in the Bible. I have a duty to say if someone is living the wrong way according to the Bible.”

He defended his reference to homosexuals as a “cancer,” saying, “if you have cancer and don’t do something about it, you will die. The same with homosexuality — it can infect and destroy the whole society.”

Green said he felt compelled to speak out after seeing the power of the gay lobby in Swedish society. He said he invited reporters to attend his sermon, and when none showed up, he sent the text to the local newspaper. That’s where a local gay organization saw it, and made an official complaint to the police, who called Green and asked for a recording of his sermon. The indictment followed.

Cooperman reported from Washington. Special correspondent Fia Lien contributed to this report.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Washington Post, USA
Jan. 29, 2005
Keith B. Richburg and Alan Cooperman, Washington Post Foreign Service

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday January 31, 2005.
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