STOCKHOLM -- One Sunday in the summer of 2003, the Rev. Ake Green, a Pentecostal pastor, stepped into the pulpit of his small church in the southern Swedish village of Borgholm. There, the 63-year-old clergyman delivered a sermon denouncing homosexuality as "a deep cancerous tumor in the entire society" and condemning Sweden's plan to allow gays to form legally recognized partnerships.
"Our country is facing a disaster of great proportions," he told the 75 parishioners at the service. "Sexually twisted people will rape animals," Green declared, and homosexuals "open the door to forbidden areas," such as pedophilia.
Ake Green assailed gays.
With these words, which the local newspaper published at his request, Green ran afoul of Sweden's strict laws against hate speech. He was indicted, convicted and sentenced to 30 days in jail. He remains free pending appeal.
U.S. law regulates what can be said about individuals, but it generally protects speech directed against groups, however harsh, allowing Ku Klux Klan leaders and neo-Nazis, for example, to state their ideologies publicly. But in Europe, laws banning such speech and similarly controversial symbols are common.
Nonetheless, Green's case has triggered debate about the breadth of the Swedish law. Though many people here, including politicians and gay rights organizations, denounce him as intolerant, homophobic and a crackpot, others have sprung to his defense. These include members of the Christian Democratic Party, who contend his prosecution shows that free speech and religious freedom are under assault by a government too eager to protect minority rights.
Green has also found a following in the United States. The Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the District-based National Clergy Council, a network of 5,000 conservative Christian leaders, said the case had become "a cause celebre" among the Christian right because "there is a fear we are heading in a similar direction in this country."
"What has been a traditional moral expression of the church has now been criminalized in a very modern, sophisticated, Western state, and that is extremely alarming," Schenck said in an interview. "We believe strongly that homosexuality is sin, that it is an offense to God and that it is injurious to the individuals involved and to the society surrounding them. Why can't we believe and say that, if they are free to believe and say the opposite?"
Kevin Cathcart, executive director of the gay rights group Lambda Legal, said that religious conservatives in the United States were "trying to twist" the Green case to their advantage, but that it was "not relevant to any actual debate about gay civil rights or the role of religion in the United States."
U.S. gay rights groups "are not interested in forcing any churches to do anything they don't want to do theologically," Cathcart said. Evangelical Christians who think Green's case is what the future holds for them "may be right," he said, "but only if they move to Sweden."
Germany has some of Europe's strongest hate-speech laws, banning Nazi symbols and expressions of support for Adolf Hitler's beliefs. Those measures grow from memories of Nazi rule in the 1930s and '40s. Similar laws are found in many parts of Europe, reflecting social compacts that grant governments broad powers to regulate daily life. Prosecutors regularly indict people for statements and acts that would go unchallenged in the United States.
In France, the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen raised a furor this month by saying in an interview that Nazi Germany's occupation of France was "not particularly inhumane." The French justice minister launched an investigation to see if Le Pen could be criminally prosecuted.
After a British newspaper published a photo of Prince Harry wearing a Nazi uniform with a swastika armband at a party, the European Union's justice commissioner, Franco Frattini, proposed considering a ban on the symbol in all of the bloc's 25 countries.
Green, who is tall and lean with thinning white hair and a preacher's reserve, says he sees himself as a crusader for free speech, although he said that was never his intention.
If his sentence is upheld on appeal, "it will diminish freedom of speech in Sweden, and that will mean we can't teach everything the Bible says," Green said in an interview at his attorney's office in Stockholm. "They'll go further and say we can't preach about other things, either."