Anti-gay pastor wins appeal

The Swedish pastor sentenced to prison for a sermon that was said to spread hatred against gay people has had his conviction quashed on appeal, in a verdict that a Swedish gay rights group has called “disturbing”.

Åke Green, a pentacostalist pastor from Borgholm on the Baltic island of Öland, was convicted last year by a court in Kalmar under Swedish laws banning ‘agitation against minority groups’.

In the original verdict, the court ruled that certain phrases in his sermon amounted to an attempt to stir up hatred of homosexuals. During the sermon, copies of which were later distributed by Green to local media, the pastor called homosexuality a “cancer on the face of society”, and said that homosexuality could lead to bestiality and paedophilia. The court sentenced him to one month in prison.

Overturning the earlier ruling, the appeal court in Jönköping said that there was “no evidence that the pastor was using his preaching as a cover to attack homosexuals,” arguing instead that Green was clarifying his beliefs and his interpretation of biblical passages.

The court added that Green’s own statements in the sermon were “unscientific, and are very questionable”. The court also said that the words he had chosen to develop biblical texts were “remarkable”, but that the content of the sermon went no further than the texts that he was quoting.

The appeal court rejected the arguments of prosecutor Kjell Yngvesson, who had demanded that the pastor’s prison sentence be extended. One judge on the five-member appeal court panel dissented from the judgement, arguing that the original verdict should stand.

The verdict is certain to delight many evangelical Christians, among whom Green has become something of a martyr figure. Certain extremist Christian movements in the United States were particularly upset by the original ruling. Pastor Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas even set up a website entitled ‘God Hates Sweden’.

Green’s conviction had also been attacked by the Swedish press ombudsman, Olle Stenholm, who said that Green should be made to defend his statements in a “free and open debate”.

The appeal court agreed, but it is unlikely to be the end of the matter: prosecutors see this as an important test case. Before the appeal, Kjell Yngevesson said that he intended to take the case to the supreme court if he lost.

Gay rights groups have declared their disappointment. RFSL spokeswoman Maria Sjödin said in a press release that the verdict was “disturbing”, when hate crime is “on the rise.”

“Agitation, whether it is based on religious or neo-Nazi beliefs, legitimizes violence,” she continued. “The verdict would have been very different if Åke Green had agitated against black people or Jews.”

Sources: Svenska Dagbladet, Dagens Nyheter