Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

England's Repressive Tolerance

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

England's Repressive Tolerance

Article excerpt

Carrying a placard which read, "Jesus Gives Peace, Jesus is Alive, Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism, Jesus is Lord," sixtynine-year-old street preacher Harry Hammond went into the center of Bournemouth on a Saturday afternoon in 2001. As he started to speak, a crowd surrounded him, pushed him to the ground, pulled down his banner, and threw water and soil on him.

The police arrived - and arrested Hammond for inciting his own assault. They did not arrest anyone who had assaulted him. In court, they said that they had been uncertain whether they should protect or arrest him. He was found guilty, and ordered to pay fines and costs totaling £695 (about $1,000). Soon after his conviction, he was hospitalized, and he died shortly thereafter.

The legislation used to arrest and convict Hammond was the Public Order Act 1986. The act holds that "A person is guilty of an offense if he . . . displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby." The defendant must "prove . . . that his conduct was reasonable." A subsequent appeal by Hammond's executors was denied by two judges of the High Court in London, who upheld the finding that his speech "went beyond legitimate protest" and that the need to maintain order overruled his rights to free speech under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights.

The first Public Order Act was passed in 1936 to prevent Oswald Mosley's notorious Blackshirts from marching through the Jewish neighborhood in the East End of London. It prohibited groups "organised or trained or equipped for the purpose of enabling them to be employed in usurping the functions of the police or of the armed forces" and "enabling them to be employed for the use or display of physical force in promoting any political object, or in such manner as to arouse reasonable apprehension that they are organised and either trained or equipped for that purpose." Those who drafted the original version of this act would be amazed to see its new application.

The 1986 version of the law was not intended to ban street-preaching like Hammond's, but did not need to be redrafted for it to be used as the basis for his arrest. It was merely applied to suit the cultural and political agenda of the day. In the 1990s, the British government prioritized certain offenses, such as those considered homophobic, and the police responded by reinterpreting the existing law to include them.

The Hammond case first drew my attention to the gathering legal opposition to the Christian faith and the growing trend toward discrimination against Christians in general. In the subsequent ten years since the case, the interpretation of British law has further hardened against manifestations of Christian belief, bolstered by the attitude of publicly funded state organizations.

In 2005, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the primary state-sponsored media organization in the United Kingdom, televised Jerry Springer: The Opera. In the show, Jesus is presented as gay, in a nappy, and in a sexual relationship. The BBC received 55,000 complaints - its largest number ever - but asserted its commitment to freedom of speech. When one of those complainants attempted to sue, the BBC used taxpayers' money to employ some of the most expensive barristers in England to win the case, and afterward the production company considered bankrupting the individual who had brought the action.

Some time later, Charles Moore, former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, appeared on Question Time, a BBC current-affairs program, and criticized the Muslim Council of Britain for thinking it was "a good thing, even an Islamic thing," to kill British troops. Rather than defend Moore's right to free speech, the BBC offered an immediate apology for any offense caused and paid £30,000 ($47,000) of taxpayers' money to the council. …

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