WARSAW — Three Polish women are on trial for offending religious feelings by making posters of Poland’s holiest icon of the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo.
They face up to two years in prison if convicted.
The trial, which began Wednesday, is attracting international attention both for the use of the controversial law protecting religious feelings and for again raising the issue of LGBTQ rights in Poland.
In April 2019, the three women, Elżbieta Podleśna, Anna Prus and Joanna Gzyra-Iskandar Podleśna, put up the posters to protest a traditional Easter display put up by a church in Płock, some 110 kilometers northwest of Warsaw. The display listed the sins that believers were supposed to battle against — ranging from traditional ones like “greed,” “hate,” or “envy” but also “LGBT” and “gender.”
“The immediate reason for our action was the homophobic and hurtful installation,” Podleśna told the court, adding that she was a religious believer and saw nothing untoward about the protest using Mary, “the universal symbol of the love of a mother and child.”
“What I saw was hatred, contempt, aggression,” said Prus. She said that the three used stickers that had already been printed up for earlier protests were to complain about what she called the “hypocrisy” of the church which hasn’t dealt with pedophilia scandals while it attacks LGBTQ people.
In protest against what they saw as a display of hate, the women placed stickers around the Płock church featuring a depiction of the Black Madonna — a famous rendering of the Virgin Mary from Poland’s top pilgrimage site at the Jasna Góra monastery in Częstochowa — but with Mary and Jesus sporting LGBTQ rainbow halos.
Podleśna was arrested and her apartment was searched in what the Helsinki Human Rights Foundation said was police action “deliberately used as a form of repression.”
The arrest was celebrated by Poland’s ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has unleashed verbal attacks against LGBTQ people as a way of bolstering its political support.
“Thank you [Polish police] for the efficient identification and detention of a person suspected of desecrating the image of the Mother of God that has been sacred to Poles for centuries. No tall tales of freedom and ‘tolerance’ give ANYONE the right to offend the feelings of the faithful,” tweeted Joachim Brudziński, at the time the country’s interior minister and now an MEP.
The party and its backers in part of the powerful Roman Catholic Church have described LGBTQ rights as a threat to the Polish nation and its traditional values. Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski warned in a 2019 sermon that Poland was endangered by a “rainbow plague.”
President Andrzej Duda told an election rally last year that “LGBT ideology” was “more dangerous than communism.” Several Polish towns have also declared themselves to be zones free of LGBT ideology, prompting a backlash from other European countries.
Poland was ranked as the most anti-gay country in the EU by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.
Wednesday’s trial was interrupted by a small group of protesters shouting slogans like “Secular, not Catholic Poland!” and “Rainbow does not offend!” in front of the courthouse.
The court heard from the first witnesses, a priest from the church that put out the Easter decoration, who called the rainbow flag “filthy” for believers, and Kaja Godek, a well-known religious activist who asked the three if they were aware that homosexuality is a grave sin, before it adjourned until February 17.
“The case shows the incompatibility of Polish law with European freedom of speech standards elaborated by the European Court of Human Rights. Human rights protection is not limited to agreeable and conventional communication. It also covers speech that in order to draw or raise awareness of a particular issues ‘offends, shocks or disturbs,’” said Zuzanna Warso, a human rights lawyer.
The trial will add to Poland’s problems in Brussels, where there are already worries that the government is backsliding on democracy.
“Imagine you show this image and then face up to 2 years of prison for ‘offending religious feelings’. Unbelievable? This is happening right now — in the middle of the EU,” tweeted Terry Reintke, a German Green MEP.