As described in yesterday’s blogpost I found myself sitting alongside Pastor James McConnell during his landmark trial for making ‘grossly offensive’ comments about Islam during a church sermon. The public gallery of the court was also packed with members of Pastor McConnell’s church and other supporters, with many turned away because there was insufficient room in the courtroom to seat them.
The defence lawyers began by objecting that the prosecution’s case was so vague that no-one knew which specific words were supposed to be ‘grossly offensive’. The media had continually focused on Pastor McConnell’s characterisation of Islam as ‘satanic’ and ‘heathen’ – causing them to dub this as ‘The Satanic Islam Trial.’
The prosecution, however, surprised me by admitting at the onset that they could not bring a case on that basis, because the pastor’s theological views, as expressed in a sermon, were protected by human rights legislation. Therefore they were powerless to prosecute him for saying Islam was ‘satanic’ or ‘heathen.’ So ‘The Satanic Islam Trial’ wasn’t going to be about that at all – which should teach us not to believe everything we read in the newspapers!
This concession by the prosecution, admitted in open court as evidence, is hugely significant. While not carrying the same weight as a verdict or judge’s ruling, it does set a precedent. A crown prosecutor has admitted that clergy cannot be prosecuted in the UK for simply preaching their religious beliefs in their pulpits, even if those beliefs are unpopular or go against current trends in society.
The prosecutor also announced that they couldn’t prosecute Pastor McConnell for any of the comments he had made on subsequent TV and radio shows. Instead they were prosecuting him under the Communications Act of 2003, based on the fact that his sermon had been streamed over the internet.
The Communications Act replaced the old Telecommunications Act of 1984, which was designed to deal with offensive and abusive phone calls. It is supposed to address the problem of people sending abusive emails, or making threats of violence on Twitter or Facebook. The prosecution’s resort to this piece of legislation demonstrated that they had determined to go after Pastor McConnell come what may, and were prepared to use any legal loophole to get him.
Even more surprising were the actual words that were allegedly ‘grossly offensive.’ At one stage in his sermon the pastor had said, “People say there are good Muslims in Britain. That may be so. But I don’t trust them.”
Those five words – “But I don’t trust them” – were the ‘grossly offensive’ speech for which a 78-year-old retired pastor was being threatened with six months imprisonment!
Now, I personally wouldn’t speak of Muslims in such terms (although I think I have used such language in my own preaching when talking about bankers or politicians!). But to characterise such language as ‘grossly offensive,’ and to exploit a legal loophole as the prosecution were doing, demonstrated to me the utter vindictiveness of the prosecution service in bringing this case to court. This was most certainly a case of bullying by civil authorities – and the irony was that the legal loophole they were using to do so was itself designed to stop bullying on the internet!
Both the defence and prosecution legal teams insisted that the five ‘grossly offensive’ words should be set in context, and this meant playing a DVD of the sermon in question. The judge would have been happy just to view the sermon, but the defence insisted that the court should view the service in its entirety.
What followed next was possibly unique in British legal history. We spent two hours in a courtroom watching an entire Pentecostal worship service – the prayers, the worship, the preaching and the altar call. People in the public gallery were worshipping, swaying from side to side, silently singing along and even raising their hands! At one point Pastor McConnell leaned over and whispered to me, “That’s the first time I’ve seen this recording. Though I say so myself, that was a good sermon!” Occasionally I heard an ‘Amen!’ or a ‘Hallelujah!’ coming from the public gallery.
The brief remarks about Islam were a tiny part of an overall presentation that focused on Jesus and His role as Redeemer, Mediator and Ransom. I found myself thinking how God turns around things for His glory. This vindictive prosecution was causing a bunch of lawyers, journalists, court officials, and a judge to hear a very expressive and easily understood presentation of the Gospel of Christ.