STOCKHOLM, Sweden – A Swedish pastor convicted of hate crimes for a sermon denouncing homosexuals as a "cancer" was acquitted Friday by an appeals court that said he was protected by the country's free speech laws.
The Goeta Appeals Court said that while Aake Green's (search) views of gays can be "strongly questioned," it was not illegal to offer a personal interpretation of the Bible and urge others to follow it.
"The purpose of making agitation against gays punishable is not to prevent arguments or discussions about homosexuality, not in churches or in other parts of society," the court said.
Green, 63, was the first clergyman convicted under Sweden's tough hate crimes (search) laws, which make it a crime to make inflammatory remarks against racial, religious or national groups. The laws were ratified in 2003 to include homosexuals.
Green gave his sermon the same year, telling a congregation on the small southeastern island of Oeland that homosexuals were "a deep cancer tumor on all of society." He warned congregants that Sweden risked a natural disaster because of its leniency toward gays.
"Homosexuality is something sick," Green said. He compared it with pedophilia and bestiality, saying gays were more likely to rape children and animals.
He was convicted in June and sentenced to 30 days in jail.
In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Green said it was not the month in prison he's worried about, but "the freedom to preach God's word."
The appeals court shared that concern, saying statements during sermons rarely qualify as racial agitation.
Green's acquittal brought a sigh of relief from some ministers who saw the case as a challenge to freedom of religion and expression.
"This indicates that the justice system works, and that it gives a certain amount of protection to us who preach God's word," said Ralph Toerner, a priest from the Swedish branch of the British-based Holy Catholic Church (search).
"But at the same time, I think this should be a warning signal to preachers overall, that they shouldn't use such coarse language when talking about something sensitive. The Christian faith is not about judging people."
Prosecutor Kjell Yngvesson argued that Green — who invited several newspapers to hear the sermon — "expressed disdain for the homosexuals as a group. He compared the sermon to a racist shouting out the Nazi salute "Sieg Heil."
Johanna Nystroem, a spokeswoman for RFSU, the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (search), had hoped Green's sentence would be upheld.
"To say these things in a public setting is to call for action (against gays)," said Nystroem. "It's one thing to be against homosexuality, but when you're urging people to take action in the way he did, it's a completely different matter."
Not all religious leaders support Green. Swedish Archbishop Karl Gustav Hammar has denounced his sermon, calling it "a miserable theology," and said the case should not be seen as a threat to religious freedom.
"It's not a question of the freedom of the pulpit," Hammar said. "The sermon was evidently sent out to the media to create a reaction."