Street preachers acquitted of public order offences

You may remember – back in March – two street preachers were convicted of public order offences for quoting King James Bible. You can read the relevant facts, and watch a video of Mr Overd’s arrest, by following the link. As a summary, my earlier post noted:

The police determined to shut down somebody sharing their understanding of their faith, and their straightforward interpretation of the Bible, simply because some listening did not like it. As Archbishop Cranmer notes, ‘this tends not to go down very well with those who enjoy sin, don’t want to be saved, or believe that all ways lead to God’. The prosecutor then asserted that a claim that Jesus is the only way to God is not a matter of truth, despite the patently obvious fact that he either is or he isn’t. Either there is no God to get to, no God willing to be gotten to or there is a God through whom there is some way of which Jesus may, or may not, be the only one. It is a clear and obvious matter of truth. The prosecutor may (rightly or wrongly) want to note that it is a truth that cannot ever be reliably proven [to the court’s satisfaction], but to deny it is a truth claim at all that can be believed in either direction is an absurd claim. And yet the court ruled such an absurd argument, despite the deeply held belief of Mssrs Overd and Stockwell that what they proclaimed was indeed the truth and nothing but the truth, was legitimate. And thus Pilate’s enduring claim, the product of his own cowardice before the crowds, holds sway.

The High Court has since ruled that the two men were not guilty of any public order offence. The Bristol Post report:

Judge Martin Picton, who was accompanied by two magistrates for the hearing, said they had no difficulty in concluding that the prosecution had not proved the preachers showed hostility to members of another religious group.

Regarding the alleged public order offence, Judge Picton said: “We conclude Mr Stockwell did no more than express his no doubt sincerely held religious beliefs as he was entitled to do.”

He said though Mr Overd seemed to take some satisfaction in “working the crowd”, it was also not proved that he committed a public order offence.

Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, commented:

This is a fantastic victory for freedom of speech and particularly the freedom of Christians to preach the good news of the gospel…

…At a time where Christians are becoming increasingly fearful about expressing their beliefs in the public space, this is a welcome and needed result.

Whatever you may feel about Mssrs Overd and Stockwell’s views, or the way in which they stated them, this ruling is to the benefit of us all. Whether the two men could have been more winsome, guarded, pleasant, or whatever in their manner is really besides the point. Those things may matter in a discussion about etiquette and politeness, they may be at issue when discussing the wisest and best approach to sharing our faith, but they ought not to be a factor in whether their actions are criminal. If those hurling abuse and curse words were (rightly) guilty of no crime, two men reading portions of scripture and sharing their sincere religious belief likewise ought not to lead to police action.

I have been involved in open air street preaching across the UK for most of my life. I have rarely, if ever, been with those preaching quite in the manner of Mr Overd. The tone I am used to hearing is typically less virulent and, my experience at least, has been of people wishing to engage in reasoned discussion, sharing beliefs and views rather than antagonising and winding up crowds. But since when has being ‘annoying’ been a crime? I recall that specific word being dropped from an already controversial piece of legislation due to its clearly subjective nature and broad definition. Mssrs Overd and Stockwell – whether we care for their tactics and tone or not – have rightly been given the freedom to share their beliefs in public. This ruling, likewise, gives you the freedom to publicly state your views, whatever they happen to be, even in a way others might find obnoxious or annoying. This is a good ruling for everyone, even if you neither like their message or approach to sharing it.