, Religion and the law part two: leadingcounsel.co.uk
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Religion and the law part two

Last week we saw that Lord Justice Laws stated that "The common law and ECHR Article 9 offer vigorous protection of the Christian's right (and every other person's right) to hold and express his or her beliefs. And so they should. ". Unfortunately this does not appear to have filtered down to the Cumbria police.

The brief facts are these. On April 20 a man preaching in Workington was arrested. He had been preaching about matters referred to as sins in the Bible. Whilst discussing matters with a passerby, he stated that he believed same-sex relationships went against the word of God. (He admits this), as we will see in more detail hereafter. The police allege that he made the remark in a voice loud enough to be overheard by others. In consequence they have charged him with using abusive or insulting language, contrary to Sections 5 (1) and (6) of the Public Order Act.

Mr McAlpine is a regular preacher and was handing out Christian leaflets when the conversation about faith with the woman passerby occurred. He referred to matters he said were listed as sins in 1 Corinthians including homosexuality, blasphemy, fornication, adultery and drunkenness. The woman left, spoke to a police community support officer who then went to Mr McAlpine and told him that he could be arrested for using racist or homophobic language. The support officer according to Mr McAlpine said that he himself was homosexual and identified himself as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender liaison officer for Cumbria police (we have not been told his "participation in arrest" rate). Mr McAlpine says he responded to say that it was still a sin. He then carried on preaching but did not again mention homosexuality. No doubt having been summoned by the support officer, three regular uniformed police officers turned up while Mr McAlpine was still preaching, arrested him and placed him in the back of their police van. He was held in custody for 7 hours and had to give fingerprints, together with a palm print, a retina scan and also a DNA swab. He was also interviewed before being charged. He was released on bail on the condition that he did not preach in public. He is now awaiting trial. (One could imagine a suitable Monty Python sketch where someone came over and stated that they were the fornication and adultery community support officer and that a passing adulterer had been insulted and upset by it being called a sin, and also pointed out that his strictures about drunkenness had upset 50 football fans leaving a nearby pub).

A more ridiculous waste of police time it would be difficult to imagine. More seriously it is a blatant attempt to interfere with free speech. My own personal view is that your sexuality is a private matter, and your inclinations are something which is part of your make up, whatever that is. As a heterosexual I would find it utterly impossible to live as a homosexual if mandated by legal or moral strictures to do so, and I do not see how I or anybody else could expect something different from a homosexual. Nor do I personally see why two people loving one another should be treated as a sin (assuming we are talking about consenting adults). It follows that if I met Mr McAlpine at say they dinner party, our conversation might end up being a very lively one. However it would not occur to me in a million years that he should be prevented from saying what he thinks, still less criminalised for doing so.

It is important to bear in mind the context. Mr McAlpine was not standing up suggesting that gays should be beaten up, or were repugnant, or were not properly human beings. He was stating that he thought homosexuality was a sin. That is a question of belief. It is a point of view which, however upsetting it might be to others, he is entitled to hold and to pronounce on. Expressing the belief cannot of itself amount to insulting or abusive behaviour. Indeed preventing him from doing so seems to go directly contrary to what Lord Justice Laws said. It is the more deplorable that effectively, pending trial, he has been prevented from preaching. I have never listened to a street religious preacher, and doubt I ever will, but preventing someone from doing it on such a slender basis is an outrageous denial of free speech.

We will wait to see what the magistrates of Cumbria make of all this.

Michael J. Booth QC