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The State of Colorado Is Considering European-Style Repression of Religion

One need look no further than Colorado to see that we are not immune from this stain on the soul of liberty.
Lathan Watts
Written by
Jack Phillips

The world wars of the 20th century disabused Americans of the notion that oceanic barriers between our nation, Europe, and Asia could effectively isolate us from the rising tide of fascism and imperialist aggression. Today, we are reminded again that — despite our republic’s firm foundation upon the principles of ordered liberty, inherent dignity, and individual rights of men as image-bearers of God — America is not immune to the authoritarian impulse.

We may look on with mawkish disbelief at the censorship and the criminalization of dissent in Europe, but we should do so accompanied by the cold realization that persecution is closer to home than we might have thought.

Päivi Räsänen, a member of the Parliament of Finland, has spent the better part of five years in legal jeopardy for publicly expressing her views on marriage and human sexuality. The Finnish prosecutor general brought three criminal charges against Räsänen at the end of April 2021, after almost two years of police investigation.

The medical doctor, mother of five, and grandmother of twelve was accused of having engaged in “hate speech” for publicly voicing her opinion on marriage and human sexuality in a 2004 church pamphlet, for comments made during a 2019 radio debate, and a tweet she directed at her church leadership. Bishop Juhana Pohjola, the chairman of the International Lutheran Council, faced charges for having published the pamphlet that Räsänen authored.

Thankfully, the trial court acquitted Räsänen and Pohjola; however, in Finland, the prosecution can appeal a trial-court acquittal and did so. In a unanimous ruling in November 2023, the Helsinki court of appeal upheld the acquittal. Undeterred by two unanimous defeats, the Finnish state prosecutor has appealed to that country’s supreme court. The prosecution is demanding tens of thousands of euros in fines and insisting that Räsänen’s and Pohjola’s publications be censored. The high court will next decide whether to admit the case.

Adam Smith-Connor, a veteran of the British army reserves who served in Afghanistan, was issued a fine and criminally charged for praying silently near an abortion facility in Bournemouth and was questioned as to “the nature of his prayer.” Local authorities had implemented a censorship zone (or so-called buffer zone) through a public-spaces-protection order that criminalizes engaging in “an act” or even “attempted act” of “approval/disapproval, concerning issues related to abortion services, by any means.” This includes but is not limited to “graphic, verbal or written means, prayer or counseling” within an area surrounding the abortion facility. The order further prohibits religious acts, including reading scripture, praying, or crossing oneself.

Smith-Connor’s trial will be the third thought-crime prosecution of this nature in England in the past year. Isabel Vaughan-Spruce and Father Sean Gough, both of whom were prosecuted for praying silently near an abortion facility in Birmingham, have been found innocent in court.

Despite repeated losses in court, the activist officials persist because they recognize that process is punishment. And with each case, the chilling message to the public is clear: Dissent from the government-approved viewpoint, whether in word or thought, will not go unpunished.

Relentless persecution despite repeated losses in court might as well be the state motto of Colorado. Christian cake artist Jack Phillips’s legal odyssey has now dragged on longer than the Trojan War. He is still in court, this time at the Colorado supreme court, because he cannot express messages that conflict with his beliefs.

Even though the United States Supreme Court rebuked Colorado officials’ overt hostility to Phillips’s sincerely held religious convictions and, in last year’s 303 Creative v. Elenis decision, clearly stated that government-coerced speech is a violation of the First Amendment, Colorado is tripling down. Apparently, going after individuals is not enough. Now the legislature wants to widen the net to include entire organizations.

House Bill 24-1124, as introduced, would amend the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act to add any nonprofit organization to the act’s definition of covered places of “public accommodation” unless the nonprofit is a “church, synagogue, mosque, or other place that is principally used for religious purposes.” That change would clarify that the anti-discrimination act’s reach extends to many private schools, public-policy organizations, pregnancy-resource centers, women’s shelters, issue-advocacy organizations, and many other venues.

European-style persecution of individuals whose beliefs are at odds with cultural orthodoxy exemplifies a growing global trend toward censorship and “thought crime.” In America, one need look no further than Colorado to see that we are not immune from this stain on the soul of liberty.

Lathan Watts, VP of Public Affairs
Lathan Watts
Vice President of Public Affairs
Lathan Watts serves as vice president of Public Affairs at Alliance Defending Freedom.