Lithuania tried to ban Jesus from wearing jeans

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After more than five years since it all started, Lithuanian fashion designer Robert Kalinkin wins a case Sekmadienis Ltd (on behalf of Kalinkin) vs. Lithuania in the European Court of Human Rights. The news broke on Tuesday, 30 January, when ECHR declared that the state of Lithuania violated Article 10 of the Convention (freedom of speech) in the case against the designer by banning their fashion advertisements.

Robert Kalnkin Jesus Dilemma

The story started in October 2012 with fashion ads by the aforementioned designer featuring young people resembling Christian Catholic religious figures Jesus and Mary, or so the authorities claimed. One of the ads featured a young man with long hair, a headband, a halo around his head and several tattoos wearing a pair of jeans (see below). A caption at the bottom of the image read ‘Jesus, what trousers!’ The second ad featured a young woman dressed in white with a halo around her head and a flower headdress; the caption read ‘Mother of God, what a dress!’ The third ad pictured both of them leaning against each other with a caption reading ‘Jesus [and] Mary what a style’. All captions are Lithuanian colloquial expressions equivalent to ‘Oh Lord’ ‘Dear God’ and so. As the designer of his namesake brand Robert Kalinkin claims, the ads meant to be comic, not insulting and ‘no one in their right mind would see it as a crime’.

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According to Robert Kalinkin, the ads were created and posted in Vilnius and on his website to advertise his new collection and a catwalk show in 2012. Five days to the catwalk show he received a warning from the local inspectorate asking to remove the ads as in violation of Article 4 § 2 (1) of the Law on Advertising as being contrary to public morals. The designer agreed to do as asked but it hasn’t ended there.

Advised by the Bishops

Apparently, State Consumer Rights Protection Authority (SCRPA) received multiple (4 individual and one from the local law firm) complaints about the ads being insulting to public morals (namely, religious beliefs). It should be explained here that 77% of the Lithuanian population indicate themselves as Roman Catholics but there is no State religion as such, Lithuania is a semi-presidential democratic republic. However, more often than not the majority religion is used by the current government and various institutions as a moral compass.

On 27 November 2012, a local Inspectorate drew up a report of a violation of the Law on Advertising against the ad producers. The report was based on the assumed insult to the religious people, “advertisements of such nature offend[ed] religious feelings” and “the basic respect for spirituality [was] disappearing”.

Additionally to the several complaints and the provision by the regulatory bodies for advertising, SCRPA was also advised by the Lithuanian Bishops Conference. The Bishops Conference deemed the fashion ads:

‘<…> The inappropriate depiction of Christ and Mary in the advertisements encourages a frivolous attitude towards the ethical values of the Christian faith, and promotes a lifestyle which is incompatible with the principles of a religious person.’

The Bishops have also collected one hundred signatures from offended religious people to prove the point. Consequently, the SCRPA fined the Sekmadiens Ltd (ad producers on behalf of the designer) with a 2000 litas (€580) fine.

Although the designer and the company argued that the ad producers had no intentions to insult religious people, the ads were based purely on a wordplay, in the absence of a State religion in Lithuania, the interests of one group – practising Catholics – could not be equated to those of the entire society, and, more importantly, the punishment against the ad producers violates Article 10 (freedom of speech), the arguments were dismissed by the SCRPA and other parties.

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One Hundred Believers

The designer and the accused company brought a complaint to Vilnius Regional Administrative Court arguing their case and adding that complaints by a hundred individuals were not sufficient to find that the majority of religious people in Lithuania had been offended by the advertisements.

The administrative court dismissed the case on the basis of SCRP accusations.

The designer and the company later appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court of Lithuania. The Supreme Administrative Court independent committee ruled out the applicant’s appeal stating:

In its appeal [the applicant company] alleges that there are no objective grounds to find that the advertisements offended the feelings of religious people … It must be noted that the case file includes a letter by almost one hundred religious individuals, sent to the Lithuanian Bishops Conference, expressing dissatisfaction with the advertisements in question. This refutes [the applicant company’s] arguments and they are hereby dismissed as unfounded.”

After the dismissal, the President of the Supreme Administrative personally applied to reopen the proceedings warning the Supreme Court of possible violations of the freedom of speech. Regardless, a different panel of the Supreme Administrative Court refused and declared that the court decision was final.

Designer vs. Lithuania

In October 2014 the designer and the company Sekmadienis Ltd, represented by the lawyer K. Liutkevicius, appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The applicant company alleged that there had been an interference with its right to freedom of expression, contrary to Article 10 of the Convention.

‘We wanted to create a precedent and we succeeded. The decisions to ban our ads were taken light-heartedly disregarding the freedom of speech, which by the way is defined in the Lithuania Constitution, while religion is not. Lithuania has no State religion. On what basis are we being punished?’ – designer Robert Kalinkin explains their decision to build a case against the Republic of Lithuania.

30 January 2018 is a notable date in religious-bound Lithuania. The decision of the European Human Rights Court declared the Republic of Lithuania guilty of violating the right of freedom of speech and ordered to repay the €580 to the Sekmadienis Ltd. Robert Kalinkin says that they didn’t want to make a profit out of this case but rather make a point thus they didn’t ask for other compensations. Moreover, they were represented free of charge by the Human Rights Monitoring Institute of Lithuania.

The EHRC dismissed the accusations to the designer questioning the mere reasoning of the decision: ‘The Court takes particular issue with the reasoning provided in the decision of the SCRPA, which was subsequently upheld by the domestic courts in its entirety. The SCRPA held that the advertisements “promot[ed] a lifestyle which [was] incompatible with the principles of a religious person”, without explaining what that lifestyle was and how the advertisements were promoting it, nor why a lifestyle which is “incompatible with the principles of a religious person” would necessarily be incompatible with public morals.’

As Judge De Gaetano summed it up, ‘if the adverts were considered as somehow inappropriate, one wonders whether it would have been more effective to advise the faithful to boycott the firm using the adverts, rather than to provoke court litigation <…>.’

Religious symbols in fashion

From Madonna in 1984 to Christopher Kane SS17 – religious references in fashion are common and celebrated on the international catwalks globally. When Madonna started a trend of rosaries’ beads worn as a fashion item in 1984 it could have been controversial. Today, designers and powerhouses such as Dolce and Gabanna, Givenchy, Versace, Christopher Kane and others are repeatedly using religious symbols and figures, the cross and the Virgin Marry most commonly, in all forms and colours.

The master of controversy late Alexander McQueen constantly used religious references in the thematic composition of his creative process. The infamous show of his ‘Dante’ collection in 1996 was based on a mix of religious iconography and disturbing war images topped with a symbolic styling and an epic venue – Christ Church in Spitalfields.

As for the ‘Jesus [and] Mary, What are you wearing?’ campaign, it might have started as a series of ads, but it has already reborn as a limited edition of the #freedomofspeech T-shirt. And so goes the reincarnation.