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Mark Ellse: In today’s Britain preaching the Bible can land you in court


In March this year Mike Overd, a Christian street preacher, was fined £200 for quoting from the Bible. Specifically he quoted from Leviticus 20 which condemns same-sex relationships as sinful and calls for gay men to be put to death, though Overd did not quote the last part about the Levitical penalty for such activity.

The case caused some controversy, particularly because at the original trial District Judge Shamim Ahmed Qureshi told Overd he could instead have chosen a separate passage in Leviticus 18, which merely describes homosexuality as an “abomination” but does not specify death as a punishment. On Friday Mike Overd, supported by the Christian Legal Centre, won his appeal against that conviction.

Mike Overd was charged under the Public Order Act 1986 which states that a person is guilty of an offence if he uses threatening, abusive or insulting words (the word ‘insulting’ shortly to be ditched by courtesy of recent action by the House of Lords). Overd did not deny quoting from Leviticus 20. One might expect his successful appeal to have been based on showing that the part of Leviticus he used, or even the whole of Leviticus 20, was not threatening.

In fact, his appeal was successful because the Crown failed to provide sufficient evidence to justify the conviction. In a manner reminiscent of Jesus’s own trial, one witness even told the judge that he couldn’t even remember what Overd had said, but simply asserted that it was ‘homophobic’.

Appeal successful. Costs awarded to Mike Overd. On the face of it this seems to reduce the shadow over those preaching from the Bible in public places. In practice, as ever, the situation is not a simple as that. The law of the land has an effect not only by what it states but also by the way in which it is enforced.

Though Parliament makes the law, police and the Director of Public Prosecutions are the primary agents in applying it. Here they speak with one voice. Mike Overd was arrested, charged and similarly acquitted in Taunton court in 2012 for being forthright about extra-marital sex and for comparing the perfect life of Jesus with that of Mohammed. Far from protecting Overd’s right to free speech, Sgt Neil Kimmins regards what Overd says as ‘abuse’. He is so concerned about Overd’s preaching that he ‘wants to gather evidence‘ and has urged the public to video the preacher. Whether Mike Overd is prosecuted or not, this behaviour by the police is clear intimidation. The DPP, by prosecuting in both 2012 and 2015 (the latter certainly on the basis of very thin evidence), shows similar hostility to Biblical preaching.

And when it comes down to it there may well be good grounds for regarding the Bible as being threatening. In my youth I once stood rather too close to high speed rail track in the days before all lines had fences round them. The train’s horn was deafeningly terrifying; it had a deliberate frightening quality to warn me of the real threat that the train posed to my life.

The other week, when the transport police yelled ‘Police Taser!’ at Muhaydin Mire after his Leytonstone attack they intended a deliberate frightening quality to warn Mire of the danger of their tasers. There may be good grounds for saying that parts of the Bible do contain that deliberate frightening quality which is the essence of threat. Fifty years ago street preachers were more in evidence and their message more overt. Then, as now, there were those who would quip at being told that the wages of sin are death. But more, including, the local police sergeant, would quietly reflect on what was being said, a proper reminder that for all of us our choices have consequences.

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Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse is a physicist and author. He is a former headmaster, independent school inspector and A level chief examiner.

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