PARIS, Feb. 11 -- A Swedish appeals court on Friday overturned the conviction of a Pentecostal pastor found guilty of violating the country's strict hate-speech law with a sermon that labeled homosexuality "a deep cancerous tumor in the entire society" and equated it with pedophilia.
The appeals court ruled that Sweden's law, which was enacted after World War II to protect Jews and other minorities from neo-Nazi propaganda and was only recently extended to gays, was never intended to stifle open discussion of homosexuality or restrict a pastor's right to preach.
The defendant, the Rev. Ake Green, had a right to preach "the Bible's categorical condemnation of homosexual relations as a sin," the court said, even if that position was "alien to most citizens" and if Green's views could be "strongly questioned," according to news-service translations of the court's ruling.
The prosecution had attracted widespread attention in Europe, where laws restricting speech deemed to incite hatred of specific groups are common. Some conservative Christian groups in the United States have followed the case, saying that similar laws that would restrict speech rights are in the works there.
The case began in June 2003 at Green's small church in Borgholm village on Oland island. "Our country is facing a disaster of great proportions," he said in the sermon, equating homosexuality with pedophilia and bestiality. He warned that "sexually twisted people will rape animals."
Green was convicted and sentenced to 30 days in prison, but remained free pending appeal. He was the first person in Sweden convicted of agitating against homosexuals since the law was extended to gays and lesbians in 2002. He was also the first preacher in Sweden convicted for hate speech for remarks made from the pulpit.
"My family is sharing my happiness," Green said in a brief telephone interview Friday. "All day, I've been receiving flowers and congratulations."
Under the Swedish legal system, the prosecutor in the case has three weeks to decide whether to appeal to the country's supreme court to seek to have the conviction reinstated.
Gay activists said they were dismayed by the ruling. "I don't think the verdict would have been the same if Ake Green had agitated against Jews or blacks or any other group protected by Swedish law," said Maria Sjodine, manager for the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights. "I really hope this is going to be appealed to the supreme court, and they find him guilty. Otherwise, we are not being treated equally as other groups who are covered by this law."
Special correspondent Fia Lien in Stockholm contributed to this report.