A Christian street preacher has been found guilty of using “threatening” language for quoting the Bible on the streets of Taunton, Somerset. The presiding judge advised Mike Overd, a former paratrooper, on which Bible verses he was and was not allowed to quote. But the National Secular Society has said that the ruling has grave implications for freedom of speech.
Mr Overd, who has been preaching on the streets of Taunton for about five years, was ordered to pay a fine of £200 and costs totaling a further £1,200 for quoting Leviticus 20:13 when engaged in conversation with a homosexual man, who is also a Christian. He was convicted under section 5 of the Public Order Act, which concerns causing harassment, alarm or distress by using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, Christian Today has reported.
The Judge at Bristol Crown Court, Judge Shamim Qureshi, told Mr Overd that use of that verse was unacceptable as it describes homosexual behaviour as “an abomination”. Bizarrely, Judge Qureshi advised Mr Overd that he ought to have used Leviticus 18:22 instead, even though that verse uses the same word to describe homosexuality.
However the Judge, who also sits on Sharia courts in the UK, dismissed a second charge of using “inflammatory” language amounting to Islamophobia. Mr Overd had been accused by a Christian woman of saying that Mohammed could not be compared to Jesus because he had married a nine year old girl, adding “In this country we call that paedophilia”; a comment that the woman said she found offensive.
Libby Towell, a spokesman for the Christian Legal Centre, which represented Mr Overd in court, said: “The judge is effectively censoring the Bible and saying that certain verses aren’t fit for public consumption.”
Towell warned that the case marked a “new level” in court actions against public preaching of the Christian faith. “It’s now going through what the Bible saying that some parts shouldn’t be spoken about and might cause emotional harm. It’s quite shocking,” she said.
She added that Mr Overd had been the subject of a “concerted campaign” to silence his preaching, as this is not the first time that he has faced charges for preaching the Bible. There’s been a concerted campaign to stop him speaking the word of God on the streets of Taunton,” she said. “Today was the result that the police had been looking for.”
Speaking after the case, Mr Overd said “I am amazed that the Judge sees it as his role to dictate which parts of the Bible can and can’t be preached. This is not free speech but censorship. The Judge is redacting the Bible.
“I have been ordered to pay compensation for causing ’emotional pain’ to someone who approached me aggressively demanding to debate the issue. There was no harm, injury or theft, just a simple disagreement over theology which I have now been fined for.
“My motivation for preaching the gospel is my love for Jesus Christ and my deep concern for people who do not know His great love and are heading towards an eternity separated from God.”
Andrea Williams, Chief Executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said “There will always be those who disagree with the Bible’s teaching. But we should defend to the hilt the freedom to proclaim it in a loving way, which is what Mike Overd always seeks to do.”
Mr Overd has also drawn support from an unlikely source: the National Secular Society. In a blog for the Society titled Je Suis Michael Overd published before the verdict, Benjamin Jones described Mr Overd as “obnoxious”, but warned that he also served as the “canary in the coalmine for free speech”.
“If Judge Qureshi finds Mr Overd’s comments, in which he was quoting from the Bible, to be criminal, then presumably a very great volume of the ‘moral’ teachings in the Koran and the Old Testament (for example) will likewise contain criminal content? Are we to ban religious scripture which goes much further than Mr. Overd did, and which actually calls for the capital punishment of homosexuals? If Overd is found guilty, what possible reason is there for not also banning the scripture which he articulates?
“This is a preposterous situation. Regardless of their content, do we really want to live in a society where books are banned?
“Free speech must be ‘free’ in the sense of meaning uninhibited, restricted only by prohibition on the incitement to violence or defamation. ‘Free’ however, is not to imply that speech does not have a cost for society: the price is paid in allowing Mr Overd to set out his stall, and so we take the inconsequential risk that people may be upset by what he says. We must be confident in our values, even if they are at times inconvenient to those of us who find Mr Overd’s use of our shared rights to be distinctly unpleasant.”