Michael Overd and Michael Stockwell, two British street preachers, have been convicted of a public order offence after quoting parts of the King James Bible. The prosecutor claimed that quoting the KJV should “be considered to be abusive and is a criminal matter.”
“Although the words preached are included in a version of the Bible in 1611,” said prosecutor Ian Jackson, “this does not mean that they are incapable of amounting to a public order offence in 2016.” During the four-day trial, Mr. Jackson also said, “To say to someone that Jesus is the only God is not a matter of truth. To the extent that they are saying that the only way to God is through Jesus, that cannot be a truth.” The two were found guilty under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 at Bristol Magistrates’ Court. A case against a third man was dismissed.
The case raised concerns about the state of freedom of speech and freedom of religion in the UK. At least the Bristol court considers the Bible itself to be a form of hate speech.
Christian Legal Centre solicitor Michael Phillips who represents the two men, told the court, “this prosecution is nothing more than a modern-day heresy trial – dressed up under the Public Order Act.”
“Every negative remark about other religions and ways of life are taken straight from those texts,” he said. “The preachers do not use inflammatory language, but simply the language of the Bible. If it is the case that the crown seeks to ban biblical scripture, that would be a bold move.”
He went on to argue that “free speech is foundational to the functioning of society – just as much as freedom of the press and democracy – and it must be protected at all costs.”
“We need to stand against the movement which says it’s only ok to say things that don’t offend others. That might be nice for people in the short term, but it is not beneficial in the long term,” he explained.
Mr. Overd, Mr. Stockwell and two friends were preaching in Bristol’s Broadmead Shopping Centre, in July last year. The court found Mr. Overd and Mr. Stockwell guilty under Section 31 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, for using “threatening or abusive words or behaviour or disorderly behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress, thereby, and the offence was religiously aggravated.”
The magistrates ordered the two preachers to pay £2,016 each, in fines and costs. The Crown Prosecution Service is pursuing a Criminal Behaviour Order against Mr. Overd.
Mr. Overd and Mr. Stockwell are appealing the conviction.
“Our motivation for public preaching is love.” Mr. Stockwell said. “We want people to have access to the good news about Jesus Christ. I am shocked that God’s message of love is now considered hateful and dangerous.”
Freedom of speech in the UK is under assault. It was only a matter of time considering the lengths to which the British government has gone in order to accommodate some religious minorities.
“Today, speaking God’s truth seems to be a hate crime, according to some,” said Stockwell in response to the verdict. There is a very disturbing pattern here. We declare Jesus’ message and critique rival beliefs such as Islam. Some people don’t like what we say, and threaten violence to silence us. Then, instead of defending free speech and protecting us, the police shut down free speech to avoid public disorder. And then a court convicts us of provoking disorder and risking violence!
“This gives a green light to Islamists and other groups to silence speech that they don’t like,” added Mr. Stockwell, “simply by threatening disorder or violence.”
“The Bible and its teachings are the foundation of our society and provided many of the freedoms and protections that we still enjoy today,” said Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre. So it is extraordinary that the prosecution, speaking on behalf of the state, could say that the Bible contains abusive words which, when spoken in public, constitute a criminal offence.”
“Today’s ruling, in effect, states that Bible is offensive and contains illegal speech which should not be shared in public,” Williams continued. “‘Offence’ is a very subjective thing and is easily manipulated to shut down viewpoints that people simply don’t like. Any suggestion that there is a right not to be offended must be strongly resisted. In today’s democracy, we need the freedom to debate, challenge and disagree… For a court to rule that this breaks the law is extraordinary.”
The loss of free speech leads to the loss of freedom of religion, a very important legal tradition in the UK. The Bible declares that religious freedoms will be removed and this is how it is done. Every principle of freedom enshrined in the constitutions of formerly Protestant nations will be repudiated. See Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 5, and page 451.