Two Christian street preachers have been convicted of religiously aggravated harassment after quoting from the King James Bible when asked questions about Islam and homosexuality by hecklers. The prosecution claimed that in the context of modern society this "must be considered to be abusive and is a criminal matter".
Originally four men had been accused. However, the Crown prosecution Service (CPS) dropped the charges against one before the trial began and the case against another was dismissed part way through the four-day trial as the court ruled there was no case to answer. However, Michael Overd and Michael Stockwell were convicted. After the trial their solicitor, Michael Phillips said:
"This prosecution is nothing more than a modern-day heresy trial – dressed up under the public order act."
A Barnabas Fund staff member who acted as an expert witness for the defence affirmed that what the men has said was an orthodox biblical understanding of the Christian faith as it has been historically understood. Both the conviction and the claims made by the CPS prosecutor raise considerable concerns about the UK’s longstanding constitutional commitment to freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
First, because the transcript of what the preachers said – which was filmed by them – shows that although they were subjected to considerable verbal and crude abuse by hecklers, they responded politely. Yet the police choose to arrest them instead of the hecklers.
Secondly, as we report elsewhere in this week’s Christian Action the Waddington amendment introduced in 2008 by former Home Secretary David Waddington, who died this week, specifically protects “discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices.”
Thirdly, and even more importantly, the claims of the prosecutor that merely quoting the Bible is both abusive and criminal goes to the very heart and foundation of freedom of religion in the UK. What the men were preaching was biblical Christianity. The CPS lawyer was therefore in effect claiming that it is no longer legal to speak publicly about some aspects of this.
In fact, an act of parliament passed in 1559 during the reign of Elizabeth 1 created the foundation for freedom of religion in Britain by setting out separate spheres of authority for the Church and the state. The Church was forbidden from swearing allegiance to any foreign power, while the state was prohibited from interfering in either the sacraments or the interpretation of Scripture. Although this initially only applied to the Anglican Church it laid the foundations for freedom of religion for Christians of all denominations and ultimately members of all faiths. The 1559 Act is of such importance that it has in fact been affirmed by every subsequent English sovereign, including HM Queen Elizabeth II, in their coronation oath.
As the trial took place in a magistrates court both Mr Overd and Mr Stockwell have a right to a retrial in the crown court which is likely to place in the next 3-4 months. The outcome is of vital importance to the place of freedom of religion and freedom of speech in the British constitution.