Swedish lawmakers have given initial approval to a law that could have a chilling effect on preaching against active homosexuality. Voting in May, Sweden's parliament, the Riksdag, passed on first reading a bill criminalizing "hate speech" against homosexuals. A final reading will occur this fall.

While targeting Nazi and racist hate campaigns, the bill also addresses "church sermons," causing conservative Christians in Europe to sound the alarm.

"The bill clearly violates the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights," said Johan Candelin, president of the Religious Liberties Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance and a Finnish Lutheran pastor. "If the bill passes, it will place Sweden on level with China, with the state defining which theology is permissible."

Göran Lambertz, the Swedish chancellor of justice, declared in a formal note to the Riksdag that a church sermon describing homosexual practice as sinful "might" constitute a criminal offense under the law. Anyone convicted would face up to two years in prison. The chancellor of justice monitors basic civil rights in Sweden.

Lambertz told Christianity Today that the legislation is concerned with "dangerous Nazi campaigning," not with Christianity. But, he added, "The same rules apply everywhere, and I am sure there will be court cases defining [hate speech] also in the religious context."

Prominent homosexuals have said publicly that they will report preachers who "speak disparagingly" about homosexuals from the pulpit.

The Swedish Federation for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights has demanded that no exceptions be made for churches and pastors. Federation President Sören Andersson told CT that his organization will "report hate speech irrespective of where it occurs."

Swedish Evangelical Alliance President Stefan Gustavsson said, "Pastors may fear to be outspoken [on homosexuality] in [the] future … being tried in court is clearly unpleasant."

Gustavsson said it would be "naïve to trust the verbal statements made by the chancellor of justice, and others, that the bill does not target Bible-believing churches. … The courts rule by written law, not by political comments."

Christian Democrat parliamentarian Tuve Skånberg, a pastor with the Swedish Covenant Church, agreed that the "vague wording of the bill leaves the courts without guidance as to the intention of the legislator."

There is a "real risk," he said, that judges will consider the biblical condemnation of homosexuality as disparaging in a legal sense.

Skånberg told CT that he believes the bill can "very well be stopped" on second reading, however. The governing Socialist Party is unhappy, he said, about amending the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech without a two-thirds-majority vote: "That is squarely against Swedish political traditions."

Candelin is less sanguine. "Europe, still a stronghold of religious freedom, seems about to change directions in an alarming fashion," Candelin said. "The churches must awaken to the danger."

Related Elsewhere

For more articles on Sweden, see our World Report.

The 2001 International Religious Freedom Report on Sweden says: "The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The Church of Sweden, formerly the state church, effectively became separated from the State in 1999; however, it still receives some state support."

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