Three Polish activists who reimagined and distributed a Marian icon with pro-LGBTQ symbols have been acquitted by a district court in Plock, Poland.
Elzbieta Podlesna, Anna Prus, and Joanna Gzyra-Iskandar were accused of desecration and offending religious sentiment for adding rainbow halos to a well-known Polish Madonna image, Our Lady of Czestochowa, and posting them around a local church to protest an anti-LGBTQ display in the sanctuary.
The women had faced up to two years in prison if convicted.
The Life and Family Foundation, a conservative group that brought the case, plans to appeal the decision, according to the Associated Press. “Defending the honor of the Mother of God is the responsibility of each of us, and the guilt of the accused is indisputable,” declared founder Kaja Godek on Facebook. “The courts of the Republic of Poland should protect [Catholics] from violence, including by LGBT activists.”
The Diocese of Plock also released a statement denouncing the verdict, which they described as “consent to open and public offending the feelings of believers and to profaning the Jasna Góra [another name for Our Lady of Czestochowa] image of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
The case symbolizes the political divisions in Poland, where calls for freedom of speech and religion clash with a deeply conservative government skeptical of secularization. Speaking to Onet News, Podlesna decried the desecration provision law, explaining that it “leaves a door open to use it against people who think a bit differently. I still wonder how the rainbow–a symbol of diversity and tolerance–offends these feelings. I cannot understand it, especially since I am a believer.” She continued:
“I wanted to show that Mary will not allow harm to a rainbow child who was born non-heteronormative, to a child with a different gender identity. . .It is the mother who watches over those whom the officials of the Catholic Church throw out of the community. They usurp the right to judge their place in a country which, I recall, is still secular.”
Gzyra-Iskandar also emphasized the hypocrisy of church leaders in her defense:
“I do not agree to call someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation a sin, disease, or perversion. I do not agree to stigmatizing anyone because of their identity. I do not agree to the most powerful religious institution in this country causing harm to children and hiding perpetrators of pedophilic acts.”
Judge Agnieszka Warchol concluded that the purpose of the women’s action was to draw attention to the oppression of the LGBTQ community in Poland, not to offend religious beliefs or practice. Gazeta Wyborcza reported that she pointed to letters submitted by Catholics, including catechists and clergy, arguing that the image was not derisive, but simply suggesting that LGBTQ people have a right to belong in the church. Furthermore, Warchol reasoned that the the rainbow symbol was not offensive imagery, saying, “The teaching of the Catholic Church does not exclude from the community of faith non-heteronormative people, whose equal rights are symbolized by the rainbow flag.”
The LGBT rights group Love Does Not Exclude praised the ruling as a “breakthrough,” according to the Associated Press. “This is a triumph for the LGBT+ resistance movement in the most homophobic country of the European Union,” the group said. All of the attention around the display has also made the icon a recognizable image used in protests across the country.
For Podlesna, Prus, and Gzyra-Iskandar the Madonna icon was the perfect image for defense of the persecuted and a vision of inclusion. Gzyra-Iskandar explained at the trial:
“I couldn’t have done otherwise. I want LGBT people to feel good and safe in Poland, important and needed, and have full rights. That is why Mary with the rainbow halo was and still is needed. A symbol of unconditional love, care, and acceptance.”
—Angela Howard McParland, New Ways Ministry, March 15, 2021