(CN) – A fine over a cheeky ad campaign in Lithuania involving Jesus, Mary and haute couture violated a company’s right to free expression, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Tuesday.
In 2012, the Vilnius-based clothier Sekmadienis ran an ad campaign featuring a male and female model with halos. The man wore jeans and had tattoos, while the woman was clad in a white dress and beads. The ads contained the captions “Jesus, what trousers!” and “Jesus and Mary, what are you wearing?”
The ads sparked public outrage and resulted in a government investigation. After consulting with a Lithuanian advertising agency, the state inspectorate of nonfood products and the Roman Catholic Church in Lithuania – all of which agreed the ad campaign was “disrespectful” and “degrading” – Lithuania’s consumer watchdog found the ads contrary to public morals and fined Sekmadienis about $720.
Sekmadienis took Lithuania to the European Court of Human Rights after its appeals in the national courts failed. There, the parties agreed the fine interfered with the clothier’s right to expression. And the rights court agreed the Lithuanian authorities’ actions to protect “morals arising from the Christian faith and shared by a substantial part of the Lithuanian population, and protection of the right of religious people not to be insulted” was legitimate.
However, the court blasted Lithuania for never spelling out exactly how Sekmadienis’ ad campaign was offensive, how it was incompatible with public morals, and for consulting only the Catholic church during proceedings against the clothier.
The court also noted the freedom of expression “extends to ideas which offend, shock or disturb,” and that in a pluralistic democracy “those who choose to exercise the freedom to manifest their religion cannot reasonably expect to be exempt from all criticism.”
The 7-judge panel added, “In the court’s view, it cannot be assumed that everyone who has indicated that he or she belongs to the Christian faith would necessarily consider the advertisements offensive, and the government have not provided any evidence to the contrary. Nonetheless, even assuming that the majority of the Lithuanian population were indeed to find the advertisements offensive, the court reiterates that it would be incompatible with the underlying values of the convention if the exercise of convention rights by a minority group were made conditional on its being accepted by the majority. Were this so, a minority group’s rights to freedom of expression would become merely theoretical rather than practical and effective as required by the convention.”
Lithuania was ordered to refund the fine Sekmadienis paid.
According to the rights court’s ruling, 77 percent of Lithuanians identified as Catholic in the 2011 census.
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.