An appeals court Friday overturned the hate-crimes conviction of a Swedish pastor who in a sermon had branded homosexuals as a "cancer." The Goeta appeals court said that while Aake Green's views of gays can be "strongly questioned," it was not illegal to offer a personal interpretation of the Bible and urge others to follow it.
"The purpose of making agitation against gays punishable is not to prevent arguments or discussions about homosexuality, not in churches or in other parts of society," the court said.
Green, 63, was the first clergyman convicted under Sweden's tough hate-crimes laws, which make it a crime to make inflammatory remarks against racial, religious, or national groups. The laws were ratified in 2003 to include gays.
Green said he was pleased with the verdict but called it a "partial victory," saying he expects the case to move on to the supreme court. "We'll see how far this gets me," Green told the Associated Press. "But right now I'm very happy."
Green gave his sermon the same year, telling a congregation on the small southeastern island of Oeland that gays and lesbians are "a deep cancer tumor on all of society." He warned congregants that Sweden risks a natural disaster because of its leniency toward gays. "Homosexuality is something sick," Green said. He compared it to pedophilia and bestiality, saying gays are more likely to rape children and animals.
He was convicted in June and sentenced to 30 days in jail, but the sentence was suspended pending the appeal. In an interview with the AP, Green said it was not the month in jail that worried him but "the freedom to preach God's word." The appeals court shared that concern, saying statements during sermons rarely qualify as racial agitation.
Green's acquittal brought a sigh of relief from some ministers who saw the case as a challenge to freedom of religion and expression. "This indicates that the justice system works and that it gives a certain amount of protection to us who preach God's word," said Ralph Toerner, a priest from the Swedish branch of the British-based Holy Catholic Church. "But at the same time, I think this should be a warning signal to preachers overall, that they shouldn't use such coarse language when talking about
something sensitive. The Christian faith is not about judging people," he said.
Green said he was being bombarded by phone calls from supporters Friday. "They're calling from the United States and from Sweden," he said. "They're calling on every phone they can. I'm feeling massive support over this."
Others were angry over the acquittal, saying it was an invitation to attack gays and other groups. "Would we have seen this verdict if his sermon had been about Jews or some other group? I hope not," said Katarina Lindahl, secretary-general of the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education.
Lindahl said Green's sermon was a call to action against all gay people by saying that Sweden risks God's wrath by being tolerant toward gays. "If that's not agitation, I don't know what is," Lindahl said.
Hans Ytterberg, the government-appointed ombudsman against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, said he also disagreed with the verdict and criticized the court for saying that Green's rhetoric wasn't harsh enough to be criminal. "I think that's pretty hard to believe, because it can't get much harsher," Ytterberg said. "This means you can say just about anything." (AP)