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21 January 2016

The Church must steward its freedom of speech wisely

The Church must steward its freedom of speech wisely

On the 5th January a Northern Ireland Pastor was acquitted of the criminal charges of sending and/or, causing to be sent, a 'grossly offensive' message in a sermon about Islam which was broadcast on the internet. We have covered the Pastor McConnell case in a number of articles and videos in recent weeks and months on our website.

The facts were bizarre, the central character was charismatic and the defence witnesses included a Catholic Priest, Muslim scholar and member of parliament. The case attracted worldwide media attention and our press release got picked up in America, Japan and across the UK and Europe. Ultimately this was an important case about freedom of speech and religion, and an attempt by the State to censor a Church sermon. Thankfully for everyone in our society free speech and common sense prevailed.

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 (Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights). The judge indicated that such comments were in fact 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. The judge found that while these comments were offensive, they were not 'grossly offensive' and so did not meet the criminal threshold.

However 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". He concluded with a quote from the Islamic scholar Rumi: "Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation." While no doubt poetic and sounding profound, this concluding phrase is fundamentally at odds with the Christian concepts of divine revelation through the Word of God, the weight of the biblical text and the exclusive truth claims in it about Christ.

It is clear that the law needs fresh attention; it is confusing when saying the same words can constitute a criminal offence if streamed online, but be perfectly legal if said to hundreds of people in an audience, street or congregation? The law lacks clarity and while the result here is a good one, the judgment raises questions as to how such an incident will be dealt with in the future. We are proposing that clear guidance from the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland is now needed to ensure that others are not subjected to a similar ordeal.

As we've stated before, this case may involve religion but the flawed principle behind this law is that anyone who sends any electronic communication (email, tweet, video, text etc) which anyone else finds 'grossly offensive' could be subject to a criminal trial. It is crucial to remember that there is no right not to be offended and that the term 'grossly offensive' is very subjective. It is also important to note that laws already exist which cover offences relating to obscenity, threats of violence and incitement to hatred, though these are difficult to enforce in their own ways. Clarity around this law of sending a grossly offensive communication via the public communications network would stop the courts from being clogged with other unnecessary cases at the tax-payer's expense. For now though, churches should absolutely continue to stream sermons and make content available by electronic communications however they should also be aware of the unresolved legal issues highlighted by this judgement.

The case is a fascinating microcosm of modern Western tensions between Islam, Christianity, secularism and the role of the state. It presents challenges for both the state and the Church. 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.