A Finnish district court prosecutor recently charged a member of the Finland state church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELCF), with criminal discrimination for refusing to work with a female pastor. Two other church leaders have also been charged for not interfering to prevent the alleged violation.
"The government has nothing to do with religion and wants to stay out of the discussion," said Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, who was president at IsoKirja College in Finland. "This case has nothing to do with religion; it has everything to do with a perceived lack of equality."
The case could set a precedent for similar cases concerning discrimination against homosexuals. The ELCF is still discussing whether homosexual pastors can serve in the church and whether pastors may bless homosexual couples.
Finland's laws prohibit any discrimination either in the workplace or in public based on race, language, age, family ties, health, religion, political orientation, work, sexual orientation, or gender. This is the first time that an ELCF controversy has involved state law enforcement. The case will be taken to trial November 16.
Ari Norro was scheduled to preach at a Sunday morning communion service in southern Finland last March. He is a preacher from the Lutheran Evangelical Association in Finland (LEAF), a group within the ELCF but believes that the Bible prohibits women from serving as pastors.
Norro said that churches generally arrange the pastoral shifts to avoid conflicts with a visiting pastor who does not want to conduct a worship service with a woman. But 15 minutes before the service was scheduled to begin, Petra Pohjanraito appeared.
"We were totally embarrassed by her arrival, for we understood very well that she was coming [to serve] at the altar," Norro told Christianity Today.
Norro said he offered to leave the church, but Pohjanraito decided to leave instead.
The chair of the Hyvinkää Church Council filed a request with Hyvinkää police to investigate the case, reported Helsingin Sanomat.
Pirkko Ojala, who chairs the local LEAF association, helped arrange Norro's visit. The suit alleges that she and Norro violated the penal code of Finland by preventing Pohjanraito from doing her work because of her gender. The acting vicar, Tauno Tuominen, has also been charged for failing to intervene to prevent discrimination.
Norro does not believe he committed a state crime because a clause in Finland's constitution overrules the state's penal code. The clause states that no one should be treated differently because of his religion or convictions. Norro says that clause would prevent him from being convicted because he was acting on his beliefs.
"Naturally, to be accused is far from being pleasant," Norro said. "It's sad that the church can't resolve problems like this one [by itself]. In this case, the church itself winds a rope round its neck, and then gives the end of the rope to the state [court]."
Repeated phone calls to the ELCF were not returned.
If Ojala, Norro, and Tuominen are found guilty, they will probably be fined. Norro fears that ELCF pastors will not be allowed to be guest speakers in local parishes where women are church leaders.
Norro said that even though some churches and denominations, such as the Greek Orthodox Church and the Catholic church, don't ordinate women, no one has tried to say that they are committing a crime.
He believes that in the near future, pastors may be put on trial if they refuse to work with a gay pastor or even if a pastor teaches in public that homosexual relationships are against the will of God.
More than 80 percent of Finnish citizens belong to the ELCF, and both conservative and liberal groups are part of the state church. Operation World estimates that about 20 percent of the individuals in the ELCF group themselves with mission agencies like LEAF, where they find a platform for evangelism.
The Finnish government was more involved in the state church in the past, and the president used to nominate bishops. However, the government has shifted out of church affairs in the last 20 years, according to Kärkkäinen, a theology professor at Fuller Theological Seminary.
The church has been ordaining women since 1986, and in 2006 the Bishops' Conference ruled that pastors do not have the right to refuse to work with female pastors, even if pastors believe it is unbiblical.
Pastors who don't accept the ordination of women will not be appointed vicar of a parish.
"Whatever you say, you're going to offend a segment of the church," Kärkkäinen said. "It is a debated issue, far from being resolved."
Johan Candelin, director of World Evangelical Alliance's Religious Liberty Commission, said the blessing of gay and lesbian couples will be "the hot potato in future years. When that comes up, then the church will split. What the split will look like, I don't know."
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Helsingin Sanomat reported on the story in March and again when charges were filed.
The ELCF explains its relationship to the state in some detail.
LEAF is a missionary organization within the ELCF.
The Lutheran World Federation reports that, "A 2006 survey on church-office holders, about two percent of pastors in the ELCF's 517 congregations were opposed to cooperation with women pastors" but says the debate is heating up.
Other Christianity Today stories about church life are available on our site.
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