The European Court of Human Rights will have to determine whether the images of Jesus and Mary in advertising are contrary to public morals.
It has agreed to examine the complaint of designer Robert Kalinkin (represented by the Human Rights Monitoring Institute in this case) regarding the undue restriction of his freedom of expression.
The banned ad posters depicted young men and women wearing clothes from Kalinkin’s collection, with slogans such as “Jesus, what trousers!”, “Dear Mary, what a dress!” and “Jesus [and] Mary, what are you wearing!”
In November 2012, the State Inspectorate of Non-Food Products declared that the ads used religious symbols in a disrespectful and inappropriate manner, and as such could be seen as being contrary to public morals.
Relying on these findings, the State Consumer Rights Protection Authority ruled that the ads for the designer’s collection violated the provisions of the Law on Advertising concerning public morals and fined the advertiser 2,000 litas (€579).
The company responsible for organizing the ad campaign, Sekmadienis UAB, appealed the fine, but was unsuccessful at first instance. Among other things, the court relied on the letter from the Lithuanian Bishop’s Conference, signed by one hundred believers who claimed that the ads offended their religious sensibilities.
On appeal, a chamber of three Justices of the Supreme Administrative Court of Lithuania confirmed the findings of the court of first instance, namely, that the religious symbols were used inappropriately in the ads.
According to the court, the disseminated advertisements were clearly contrary to public morals, since religion, being a certain type of world view, unavoidably contributes to the moral development of society. Symbols of a religious nature occupy a significant place in the system of spiritual values of individuals and society as a whole, the judges said, and their unsuitable use demeans them and is contrary to universally accepted moral and ethical norms.
The court ruled that the chosen form of advertising did not conform to good morals and to the principles of respecting the values of the Christian faith and its sacred symbols.
Next stop: Strasbourg
Karolis Liutkevičius, the Human Rights Monitoring Institute lawyer representing the case in Strasbourg, claims that the aforementioned judgment constituted an unreasonable restriction on artists’ and businesses’ freedom of expression:
“One of the fundamental problems with the decisions made by the authorities, which prompted us to take on this case, is that they tend to conflate public morals with religious (specifically, Catholic) morals.”
According to Liutkevičius, Lithuania is a secular state – it’s one of the fundamental social principles enshrined in the Constitution.
“With this case, we want to once again draw attention to this principle and, at the same time, protect the public’s right to public discourse and expression that is free, colorful and unburdened by unreasonable restrictions based on religion.”
The Lithuanian government has until January 24, 2017, to submit its response in the case.