05 January 2016
Common Sense Prevails as McConnell is Acquitted
Free speech and common sense have prevailed in the acquittal of Pastor McConnell, who had been accused of sending a 'grossly offensive' message in a sermon about Islam which was broadcast on the internet. This was an important case about freedom of speech and religion, and an attempt by the State to censor sermons.
While the result is a good one, the judgment raises questions as to how such an incident will be dealt with in the future. The Public Prosecution Service now need to issue clear guidance to ensure that others are not subjected to a similar ordeal.
The case turned on exactly which words, if any, were 'grossly offensive'. The prosecution accepted that characterising Islam as 'heathen' and 'satanic' would be theological views protected by human rights legislation. The judge indicated that such comments were grossly offensive in his view, but that he could not convict the pastor based on the prosecution's concession. Had this concession not been made, it seems quite possible that there might have been a different result.
The prosecution case focused in on this phrase used by the pastor: "People say there are good Muslims in Britain. That may be so, but I don't trust them." Those last five words were the allegedly 'grossly offensive' speech, for which a retired pastor was facing up to six months in prison.
Both sides argued that context was critical in this case. The prosecution played subsequent media interviews arguing that the pastor was categorising an entire people group in a way that was offensive. The defence played the whole church service, insisting that to be offended any listener would have had to sit through three hymns, two prayers, various Bible readings and the rest of the sermon on the supremacy of Christ.
In the end, justice has been done, but there is no guarantee this couldn't happen again. The decision seems to suggest that you can only critique another faith if you set out its doctrines and dissect them in a clear and robust way - a serious limit on free speech. The judge accused the pastor of "name calling" and losing "the run of himself", in comments that seemed inappropriate. He concluded with a quote from the Islamic scholar Rumi: "Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation." While sounding profound, this fails to understand divine revelation, the importance of the biblical text and the exclusive truth claims of Christ.
The law needs to be changed - how can it be that certain words can constitute a criminal offence if streamed, but be perfectly legal if said to hundreds of people in an audience or congregation? Clear guidance from the Public Prosecution Service would also stop the courts being clogged with other unnecessary cases. For now, churches must be very careful about streaming sermons or making them available online. So while the result is good, the reasoning behind it lacks clarity.
The state should not stray into censoring church sermons or unwittingly creating a right not to be offended. At the same time, the Church must steward its freedom of speech wisely to present Christ in a gracious and appealing way. The good news about Jesus will prove offensive at times, but we must be careful not to add to that.