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Supreme Court of the United States

European Faith Made Private: Privatization of the Pulpit

October 17, 2017

Religious Liberty is in peril worldwide. This blog post, the first in a series of commentaries, illustrates the increasing marginalization of Christianity in Europe. The remaining commentaries will be published over the course of the next few weeks.

Western Europe is thought to be the only part of the world where Christianity is in decline, and Christians within its borders face pressure to hide their faith to degrees not felt in even nominally Christian countries elsewhere. The reason lies not in open persecution, but in privatization. In Europe, a sharp dividing line has been drawn between religious belief and religious practice, so that Christians are frequently reminded that they can believe whatever they like and do what they like inside their churches—they simply cannot speak about or act on those beliefs in public. Christians are being told to keep their faith quiet, out of the workplace, and out of the marketplace.

Clearly the best way to keep Christianity private is to keep Christians quiet. Europe now has dozens of laws to stop Christians from speaking out on controversial issues, not just in public spaces but in pulpits and private conversations as well, enforced vigorously through the criminal code.

A few years ago, Swedish pastor Åke Green was sentenced to one month in prison for preaching on the biblical teaching against sexual immorality from the pulpit of his small church in Borgholm. Green’s offense was expressing disrespect for homosexuals, a relatively new crime that carried a maximum four-year prison sentence.

When the case was heard by the appellate court, the prosecutor pushed for a lengthier sentence, arguing that Green’s sermon was extreme. Although the court overturned the conviction, the prosecutor would not let the case drop and appealed the decision to the country’s supreme court. Fortunately, Green had the benefit of publicity, and as a result he received the legal and financial support he needed to defend himself—a privilege that not everyone who suffers a similar fate can be guaranteed.

The supreme court acquitted him more than two years after he delivered his sermon. Green’s case was reported around the world and was a watershed moment for Europe, but rather than turning away from censorship, many European countries embraced it.

Last year in Ireland, a police file was opened on Bishop Philip Boyce after one of the country’s leading secularists, John Colgan, complained about an “offensive” homily in which the bishop stated that the Church is being “attacked from the outside by the arrows of a secular and godless culture.” Colgan said, “I believe statements of this kind are an incitement to hatred of dissidents, outsiders, secularists, within the meaning of the Incitement to Hatred Act.”

Rather than ignore the complaint, the Irish police took it seriously and prepared and forwarded a file to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who in turn opened an investigation. Although no further action was taken against the bishop, he could have faced up to two years in prison if convicted of inciting hatred.

In Spain last year, Bishop Juan Antonio Reig Plà was threatened with police action after preaching a Good Friday homily in which he spoke of the nature and effects of destructive sinful behavior. Although he also mentioned adultery, theft, and failure to pay wages to workers, homosexual lobby groups were outraged by his mention of homosexual behavior. While a formal complaint to Spain’s Prosecutor General did not go any further, the Madrid city council approved a motion requesting that the bishop be removed from his post, transferred from the diocese, and no longer invited to any official events in the capital.

The increasing marginalization of the Church throughout the world should be concerning to all Christians. We must stand firm against the subtle, and not so subtle, attacks on our faith. If you, or your church, experience censorship, punishment, or unlawful regulation for speaking, acting, or ministering in accordance with Biblical principles, please contact Alliance Defending Freedom. Perhaps we can provide the legal assistance you need to live out your faith and keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel.