Pastor Eke Green has been cleared of charges of hate crime by the Swedish Supreme Court. He was previously tried and convicted by a lower court of violating Sweden's hate speech law by preaching a sermon against homosexuality. That court sentenced him to 30 days in jail.
The case has been closely watched for months by Christian leaders around the world. Focus on the Family editor Pete Winn stated that: "For the first time, a nation has passed judgment on whether the biblical position on homosexuality constitutes hate speech."
Politicians in other nations were also watching the case. Canada and Australia both have hate speech laws on the books. Canada has successfully prosecuted a couple of cases against citizens who have publicly presented the biblical view of homosexuality or refused to do business with homosexual organizations.
In Australia, a state tribunal has found two pastors guilty of vilification of Muslims under the Victoria Racial and Religious Tolerance Act that went into effect in 2002. The judge sentenced them to publicly apologizing for their statements that Islam was an inherently violent religion and that Islam planned to take over Australia.
They were to promise that they would not repeat the statements anywhere in Australia or on the internet. Failure to comply would incur a penalty of 3 months in jail or $7,000 fine if not done by August 31. The deadline has passed and the pastors are standing firm that they will go to jail before apologizing for what they believed is the truth. In fact, some of the "vilifying statements" that they were charged with were direct quotes from the Muslim Koran.
The pastors have appealed to the Australian Supreme Court on the grounds that the vilification laws are unconstitutional. The case has gotten wide publicity and churches and Christian leaders are mounting a campaign to overturn the law.
The world is also watching the progress of this case and it may have influenced the handling of a similar law in Great Britain. The increasingly vocal Muslim minority in Britain has been pushing for a law that would outlaw words, behavior or material which are "likely to stir up racial or religious hatred." The law was appended to a general crime bill earlier this year, and is still undergoing intense debate.
In our great land where "freedom rings," this same threat to free speech is creeping in the back door. Eleven Christians were arrested last year and held in jail for 21 hours for daring to preach on the streets of Philadelphia during a homosexual parade. They were arrested under Pennsylvania's Ethnic Intimidation and Institutional Vandalism Act which contains "sexual orientation" as a victim category. After several court appearances, the charges were thrown out.
A new anti-hate law in California is yet to be tested in court. It was signed into law in late 2004 and makes it a punishable offense to "intimidate" or "oppress" another person because of their ethnicity, sex, race, national origin, or sexual orientation. Even if such laws turn out to be unenforceable in court, they have a chilling effect on free speech. Defending yourself or your church in court against such a charge can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Fortunately, there are Christian legal organizations willing to step in and help anyone charged under these laws.
Hate speech laws are primarily aimed at silencing Christian preaching. Where the laws have been passed and enforced, most cases brought to court have been against pastors or soulwinners who have dared to state God's opinion from the Bible. There have been no cases brought against Muslim Imams, Catholic Priests or homosexuals under the laws.
Muslims label Christians "heretics," and homosexuals call us "homophobes" and "bigots." But they do it freely knowing that the Christians will not likely complain to the authorities. So, the end result of the new hate speech laws is to silence Christians. All other activities related to hate crimes are already illegal.
Fortunately, some of the cases are getting public attention. The supreme court in Sweden realized that Pastor Green's case was very dangerous to the free exercise of religion and free speech. Australian Churches and Christian organizations are seeing the damage to freedom that their vilification laws have caused and are mounting a campaign against them.
U.S. Congressmen are beginning to see the danger here. Senator George Allen of Virginia announced in December that he would no longer vote for hate crime legislation that included making homosexuals a protected class. He was "concerned that the right of Christians to speak truth in the public square will be compromised." His decision was influenced by the arrest of the 11 soulwinners in Philadelphia last year.
But even if the case is won in the courts, defending the charges can have a chilling effect on other ministries. Pastor Green stated after his acquittal, that he would not likely preach again on homosexuality. Other pastors will think twice before doing so just to avoid the hassle.
Fighting these cases can also have a devastating cost. It was reported that the case had already cost the Australian pastors more than 400,000 Australian dollars. This would bankrupt most churches.
It is heartening that some are beginning to wake up to this danger. Religious freedom and free speech is a precious gift. It was bought and is being defended with much bloodshed. We must not squander it by neglecting to witness to God's love for all sinners.