On Monday, March 13, the district court in Poznań sided with 32 pro-choice activists accused of "maliciously interfering in a religious ceremony". The judge who delivered the verdict admitted that the separation of church and state in Poland is purely fictional.
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The case is certainly one for the history books – it’s the largest trial of peaceful protesters in Poland since 2015, with a scale that can only be compared to trials of organized crime groups. It was also the first time that a trial turned into a tribunal on the powers of the church.

Prosecutors accused a group of 32 abortion rights activists of "maliciously interfering in a religious ceremony" when holding a protest inside the Poznań cathedral during Sunday mass. Their trial raises a number of important systemic questions: Can church space be interfered with given that the church regularly interferes in the lives of Polish citizens, including non-believers? And can a peaceful protest held during a mass be considered malicious interference in a religious ceremony?

On Monday, March 13, the district court in Poznań answered both questions in favor of the protesters.

Protesting anti-abortion law inside the Poznań cathedral

After the archbishop of Poznań and head of Poland’s episcopate, Stanisław Gądecki, publicly thanked the ruling camp for tightening the abortion law, on October 25, 2020, activists discontent with the church’s open support for the near total abortion ban stood in front of the altar in the Poznań cathedral waving protest signs, clapping, and scattering leaflets. The priest interrupted his mass and the police stepped in.

The trial took place in the largest hall of the Poznań court - the site of political trials against participants of the 1956 Poznań protests.

No malicious intent

The district court in Poznań acquitted the activists. - They interfered in the public performance of a religious act, but they were not motivated by malice: the desire to annoy, to make someone uncomfortable- said Judge Joanna Knobel, who delivered the verdict.

Nearly all of the defendants are young: students, artists, and food service workers. Except for one man with a history of failing to pay alimony on time, they had no previous criminal record.

They pled not guilty of maliciously disrupting the performance of a religious act. Half of them exercised their right to refuse to give an explanation. The rest recounted their motives, and the hearing turned into a tribunal on the Polish church. The defendants accused the church of putting women through hell.

Among other things, Judge Knobel recalled the explanation of Arkadiusz Kluk, an activist associated with the Stonewall Group: - He went to the cathedral because he felt obliged to express his opposition to the church's interference in his life and the lives of many others. He went there because he felt that other forms of communication and attempts to stop the church's hateful policies were not working. He went there without any intention to disrespect the place or the rite. He wanted to show in a peaceful way that if the church can enter his private life unsolicited, he is also able to enter the church's space on behalf of himself and others.

- Their motive was to protest the verdict of the Constitutional Tribunal and the statement of Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, who despite the separation of church and state, spoke out publicly, expressing his appreciation and joy- Judge Knobel stressed.

Sędzia Joanna Knobel podczas procesu 32 osób, które podczas Strajku Kobiet protestowaly w katedrze w Poznaniu. Sąd w Poznaniu, 27 lutego 2023 roku
Sędzia Joanna Knobel podczas procesu 32 osób, które podczas Strajku Kobiet protestowaly w katedrze w Poznaniu. Sąd w Poznaniu, 27 lutego 2023 roku  Fot. Piotr Skórnicki / Agencja Wyborcza.pl

"The separation of church and state is a fiction"

The judge stressed that she was not commenting on the content of the Constitutional Tribunal’s verdict or the archbishop's position: - However, when analyzing whether the defendants had sufficient rationale to express their protest, it should be noted that the Tribunal’s verdict actually harmed women's rights, and the church's top representatives expressed their approval for the verdict.

The judge also recalled that politicians regularly use church pulpits to further their agenda: - it is clear that the constitutional principle of separation of state and church is being violated in Poland on a regular basis.

Proces 32. Adwokat Przemysław Lis-Markiewicz pokazuje zdjęcie Jarosława Kaczyńskiego. Sąd Okręgowy w Poznaniu, 24 stycznia 2022 r.
Proces 32. Adwokat Przemysław Lis-Markiewicz pokazuje zdjęcie Jarosława Kaczyńskiego. Sąd Okręgowy w Poznaniu, 24 stycznia 2022 r.  Fot. Piotr Sk??rnicki / Agencja Wyborcza.pl

Judge Knobel also outlined the details of how the protest at the cathedral took place: - The defendants maintained solemnity and respect for the religious building. The group in front of the altar raised prepared banners in silence, and the group standing by the pew clapped, expressing their approval of the protest.

Priest calls the protest a „barbaric rally"

A turning point of the protest, according to the judge, was the statement of Father Ireneusz Szwarc, the cathedral's priest who conducted the mass. He called the protest a "barbaric rally". In response, someone shouted: "You are the barbarians". Then, two people not included in the indictment got into a discussion with the priest, who shouted, among other things: "Get out".

- None of the defendants took actions that were aggressive, annoying, or unpleasant to the priest or the worshippers- the judge stressed. - They did not mock, insult, or humiliate anyone.

The judge also mentioned the slogans written on the banners: "Abortion is not a sin," "You have blood on your hands," "This is mine" (with a drawing of ovaries and uterus). - Even assuming that the church will always oppose abortion, it cannot be said that these slogans were intended to offend or humiliate anyone- the judge assessed.

Similarly, she referred to the messages voiced out loud: "My body, my choice." - They were not offensive, nor did they incite hatred based on religious beliefs.

Judge: protesters used the cathedral to amplify their message

The judge also decided to preempt a possible charge that the protesters were promoting "a lifestyle incompatible with the principles of a religious person". She recalled that just three days earlier, the law had permitted abortion more broadly, and the protest referred to tightening the law. Judge Knobel explained that, during the mass, a certain ritual was disrupted by "the current socio-political discourse".

- The protest was targeted at members of the Constitutional Tribunal, politicians, church dignitaries, as well as the public, especially women, to whom words of support and solidarity were addressed - the judge said.

- The time and place of the protest were not accidental - the defendants used the Poznań cathedral, associated with archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, to amplify their message - she added. - They wanted to be heard by the church dignitaries, and reach a wide audience. They felt powerless: with the church’s approval, politicians imposed their vision of the world on all members of society and restricted women's rights.

The prosecution will likely appeal the verdict

- With probability bordering on certainty, I can say that the prosecution will appeal this verdict- said prosecutor Bartosz Pawlaczyk after the trial. - The court confirmed that the defendants, acting jointly and in concert, disrupted the mass. It overlooked only malicious intent. We will challenge this assessment in the appeal.

- In our opinion, their actions were malicious. Otherwise, we would not have issued the indictment. Malice is an evaluative mark- the prosecutor added. However, he refused to say what the malice consisted of: - This is not the time or place to talk about it.

Sąd uniewinnił 32 oskarżonych o protest w poznańskiej katedrze. Sąd w Poznaniu, 13 marca 2023 roku
Sąd uniewinnił 32 oskarżonych o protest w poznańskiej katedrze. Sąd w Poznaniu, 13 marca 2023 roku  Piotr Żytnicki

Citizens have the right to protest

The activists were represented pro bono by 11 Poznań lawyers. On Monday, they had a reason to celebrate. - The verdict was handed down in the same room where the workers who took part in the June 1956 protests were sentenced. Back then, they were charged with delinquency, now the defendants were charged with malice- said attorney Mateusz Bogacz.

- This is a success for our clients, the justice system, and the Polish society as a whole - he added.

- I am glad that in the 21st century, there are verdicts that emphasize the right of citizens to protest, including when politicians, the authorities, and the Catholic Church are the objects of protest- he stressed.  - Such are the standards of democracy. Polish society fought for the right to protest during the years of communism.


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