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THIS week the European Court of Human Rights handed down a verdict which law-and-religion pundits will be pondering for years to come. It vindicated Sekmadienis, a company selling the work of Robert Kalinkin, a Lithuanian fashion designer. The seller had been fined for using images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary which Catholics found offensive.
The case refers to a Kalinkin campaign in 2012 which featured a bare-chested young man and a woman, both with halos: the man was sporting jeans and tattoos, and the female figure wore a white dress with a string of beads. The captions consisted of lines such as: “Jesus, what trousers!”, “Dear Mary, what a dress!” and “Jesus, Mary, what are you wearing?”
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After receiving some complaints about the images, Lithuania’s State Consumer Protection Agency (SPCA) consulted the bishops of the Catholic church, to which nearly 80% of Lithuanians adhere. This led to Sekmadienis being fined €580 ($723) for, among other things, “encouraging a frivolous attitude towards the ethical values of the Christian faith.”
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This week’s ruling by the ECHR, an organ of the 47-nation Council of Europe, found that the company’s freedom of expression had been violated. It accepted that liberty of expression carried certain responsibilities, including a duty not to be “gratuitously offensive or profane” but it considered that the images in question did not fall into that category. It noted that freedom of expression extended to ideas which “offend, shock or disturb”.
There are several striking features in this case. The terms in which Lithuania’s SPCA denounced the images have a weirdly theocratic ring about them. It said the images “promote a lifestyle which is incompatible with the principles of a religious person”. That is a peculiar line of argument for a government agency in...
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