Two street preachers were convicted in the U.K. on Tuesday after being charged with violating Section 31 of the Crime and Disorder Act of 1998, a law governing public disorder, after they reportedly made critical public proclamations about Islam and sexuality.
Michael Overd, 52, and Michael Stockwell, 50, were found guilty of “abusive” behavior for comments they made while preaching at the Broadmead Shopping Centre in Bristol, U.K., on July 6, 2016. At the base of the legal battle against the men were their purported comments about Islam, as the they engaged in a back-and-forth with “hecklers,” legal group Christian Concern noted.
Among their statements during the back-and-forth, Stockwell, who is from New York, is reported to have quoted John 14:6, which features Jesus explaining that he is the path to salvation, and he is said to have specifically mentioned religious cohorts he is critical of, engaging in a debate with a Muslim man, in particular.
According to the BBC, the men told a Muslim adherent that his God didn’t exist, called the crowd that had gathered around them “animals” and made what the court dubbed homophobic comments.
And the Bristol Post reported that the two preachers were also critical of Muhammad and Buddha, and dismissed sex outside of marriage as “filthy” and “perverted,” though it is unclear whether those latter descriptions belong to the street preachers or are merely the Post’s framing of their words. Witnesses said the men said “Allah does not exist” and that “all Muslims will burn in hell.”
“If you are trying to come through Catholicism, through Jehovah Witness, through Mormonism, the Bible says you’re a thief and a liar and a thief comes to steal and destroy,” Stockwell said. “But Christ came that we may have life.”
During the preaching, Stockwell also expressed his concern about the lack of free speech in the U.K., saying that criticisms of Islam can lead to threats from those who disagree, or shut downs of free speech by the cops or courts.
“Men should be able to proclaim the truth and have diverse differences in the public forum, agreeing to disagree without harm or repercussions,” he said. “Truth today is the new hate.”
And Overd shared similar messages about the importance of free speech, saying, “You can’t have the threat of violence and public disorder to stop us criticizing Islam and other lifestyles. Where is our freedom? If you don’t like what I said, just move on and let others heard the message, but they want to end the free speech.”
In the end, police arrived on the scene last July after Stockwell, Overd and some friends had been preaching for about an hour.
The men were arrested and eventually taken to a local station for a few hours and later released on bail; they were charged with violating Section 31 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 for purportedly “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,” according to Christian Concern.
Prosecutors reportedly argued during the three-day court trial that the preachers created a negative environment with their comments about Islam — a situation they say could have sparked violence.
“To say to someone that Jesus is the only God is not a matter of truth,” prosecutor Ian Jackson said. “To the extent that they are saying that the only way to God is through Jesus, that cannot be a truth.”
Police inspector Andy Williams said the preachers knew that their comments were riling the crowd, and said the men simply went over the line with what they were saying. The court also heard that the crowd became restless and “feared violence” would ensure.”
“The police have to strike the balance between the right to freedom of expression and free speech and behavior that causes a member of the public to feel harassed, alarmed or distressed as a result of what is said or done,” Williams said, according to the BBC. “The court has determined that these men crossed that line and used their platform to comment on other religions and sexuality using disparaging and offensive language.”
Overd — who has reportedly appeared before the courts two other times on similar pastcharges that were acquitted — and Stockwell were each fined £300 as well as a total of £3,372 for court fees ($315 and $3,549, respectively).
In the end, the case has the U.K.’s Christian Legal Center pushing back, saying that the court is essentially treating the Bible as “a form of hate speech.”
“The Bible and its teachings are the foundation of our society and provided many of the freedoms and protections that we still enjoy today,” Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Center, said in a statement. “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 offense.”