Tech & Rights

Is Jesus Allowed to Wear Jeans in Lithuania?

In response to the restriction of freedom of expression during the advertising campaign of a clothing line, the Human Rights Monitoring Institute submitted an application to the European Court of Human Rights on the designer's behalf.

by Human Rights Monitoring Institute

Acting in the interest of designer Robertas Kalinkinas, the Human Rights Monitoring Institute submitted an application to the European Court of Human Rights* in response to the restriction of freedom of expression during the advertising campaign for the former's clothing line in fall 2012.

The advertising posters aesthetically depicted attractive young men dressed in clothes from Mr. Kalinkinas's line and bore slogans saying, "Jesus, what are your pants like!", "Dear Mary, what a dress!" and "Jesus, Mary, what are you wearing!". However, in the fall of 2012, the State Non-Food Inspectorate declared that the aforementioned advertisements used religious symbols in a disrespectful and inappropriate manner, and as such could be seen as an insult to public dignity and integrity. With reference to these conclusions, the State Consumer Protection Authority ruled that the advertisements violated the public morals provision of the Law on Advertising and imposed a fine of 2,000 Lt.

A contradictory interpretation of the Law on Advertising

According to HRMI legal officer Karolis Liutkevičius, this punishment, together with the contradictory interpretation of the Law on Advertising, unreasonably restricts the freedom of expression of both artists and businessmen. "The Law on Advertising prohibited the incitement of religious hatred, but not the use of religious symbols. There were no images mocking religion, its representatives or the faithful, no slogans or other advertising tools inciting religious hatred used in the advertising campaign for Robertas Kalinkinas's clothing line. The mere fact that the images and statements used could be associated with religion - something that hasn't been prohibited by any law in force in the Republic of Lithuania - cannot constitute a violation," claimed K. Liutkevičius.

Furthermore, both the photos and the clothes shown in these photos are works of art, and as such the imposition of administrative fines on artists for the use of religious symbols in their work is tantamount to a restriction of the cultural and creative freedom guaranteed by the Constitution. Photographs of attractive young people wearing aesthetically pleasing clothing raise a smile because they bring to mind passionate exclamations, commonly used to express amazement (and also awe) at an object or person, that are popular in Lithuania - there is no way they can be seen as inciting hatred or mocking religion in a severe fashion.

100 believers

"The fact that Lithuanian courts did not listen to these arguments, citing a prohibition (which is in fact not found in any law in Lithuania) on the use of or appeal to religious symbols in advertising, is in itself a paradox. In addition, the court declared that the whole of Lithuanian society espouses the Roman Catholic faith and adheres to its values," noted HRMI Director Dovilė Šakalienė. "The court applied a particularly innovative method to mathematically evaluate the weight of the evidence - it took into consideration a letter signed by 100 believers, submitted to the court by the Lithuanian Bishop's Conference, where it was claimed that the advertisement in question offended their sensibilities. In that event, I guess the lawyer for designer's firm should have submitted the signatures of 101 Roman Catholics who didn't take offense and the case would've been in the bag."

This case poses serious questions to our society: Do we know what freedom of religion actually is and how it relates to the freedom of expression? Are we not applying a double standard with respect to different religions? Recently it became known that Seimas (Parliament) was considering to add an outside member to the Public Communication Ethics Commission, a media self-regulatory body - that member was to be the Lithuanian Catholic Bishop's Conference. When it came to a young man that looked like Jesus wearing jeans in an advertisement, the Lithuanian Parliament passed an amendment to the Law on Advertising in May 2013 to restrict the depiction of religious symbols in advertising.

"If Jesus is everywhere, why can't he be in our advertisements?"

In the context of all these restrictions, it is worth remembering that, de jure, Lithuania has no official state religion and that our society is dependent on the business sector. The cooperation between business and art is not only beneficial to both parties, it is beneficial to all of us - provocative and unexpected art raises the bar for advertising, encouraging us to think critically and to be open to various ideas.

"This story created a huge impact and, in my opinion, will have an even greater impact in the future. For me, the case itself is not a matter of principle, it's a way to create precedent and raise important questions for society," said Robertas Kalinkinas. "Meanwhile, I can only summarize the case tongue-in-cheek - if Jesus is everywhere, why can't he be in our advertisements?"

The Human Rights Monitoring Institute and designer Robertas Kalinkinas joined forces to protect the right to freedom of expression in art and in business from any unreasonable restrictions.

*The application was submitted in the case of "Sekmadienis UAB v Lithuania". Sekmadienis UAB were commissioned by the designer to organize the presentation of his 2013 spring/summer line, for which the aforementioned advertising campaign was prepared.

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