Charges Dropped Against Anti-Gay U.K. Street Preacher
Charges against a U.K. street preacher accused of anti-gay hate speech were dropped following the offer by a prominent British GLBT equality activist to testify on his behalf.
Standing on the principle that, "Freedom of speech must be defended, even for homophobes," U.K. equality activist Peter Tatchell offered his tesitmony in defense of street preacher Dale Mcalpine.
Earlier this month, Mcalpine was arrested in a shopping district where he had been handing out leaflets and proselytizing to passers-by about the "sinfulness" of homosexuality, among other subjects. Police said that Mcalpine was voicing anti-gay views in a loud voice; Mcalpine said that he had a quiet and respectful one-to-one conversation with a female passerby about homosexuality. The case generated international headlines in the blogging community, with anti-gay religious pundits pointing to Mcalpine’s arrest as proof that anti-discrimination laws erode religious liberties and freedom of expression.
"It wasn’t very busy" on the day of his arrest, "but within about five minutes I noticed two police community support officers in fluorescent waistcoats and blue peaked caps watching from about ten feet," Mcalpine told the media. One of the policemen was Sam Adams, a GLBT community liaison officer who is gay himself, according to media reports. Adams told Mcalpine that people had complained about the street preacher, and warned him against hate speech. "I told him I was not homophobic but sometimes I did say that the Bible says homosexuality is a crime against the Creator, but it was not against the law to say this," recounted Mcalpine, going on to say that Adams "then told me he was gay and he was the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender liaison officer for the police. I said, ’It is still a sin,’ and our conversation ended," said Mcalpine. "It wasn’t a loud or aggressive conversation."
Later on, Adams left the scene--but several other officers arrived and placed Mcalpine under arrest under an anti-hooliganism law. He was taken in, booked, and held for seven hours. Mcalpine was arrested under the 1986 Public Order Act, a law passed to combat soccer fans’ rioting in the streets after matches. Mcalpine was arrested under provisions that make it a crime to cause "harassment, alarm, or distress."
"I felt deeply shocked and humiliated that I had been arrested in my own town and treated like a common criminal in front of people I know," said Mcalpine, who contested the police claim that he was loudly uttering anti-gay speech. "My freedom was taken away on the hearsay of someone who disliked what I said, and I was charged under a law that doesn’t apply." Added Mcalpine, "If you are preaching hate and calling on people to harm others, it is right that is against the law. But I would never do that. If we have a free society, I should be allowed to preach the Gospel as generations have before me."
U.K. supporters of the faith-based right to speak out against gays have pointed to other incidents in recent years to bolster their claim that they are now the ones being subjected to persecution. In 2006, a man named Stephen Green was charged for distributing fliers at a Pride event in Cardiff.
In another incident, a grandmother, the wife of a reverend, wrote to local authorities to protest a gay Pride event she had witnessed. 67-year-old Pauline Howe, who lives near Norwich, England, condemned the Pride parade as a "public display of indecency" and "offensive to God," in her letter, going on to make a number of broad claims, including the assertion that same-sex intimacy had "contributed to the downfall of every empire" and "was a major cause of sexually transmitted infections." A similar case in which a married couple in Lancashire professed their Christian beliefs in anti-gay language and were visited by the police resulted in a payout to the couple.
In the United States and elsewhere, similar arguments are made that religious liberties and full legal equality for GLBT citizens are bound to clash. Religious individuals who believe that scripture condemns homosexuality chafe that anti-discrimination protections might mean that they are breaking the law when they speak out against gays. Such possible conflicts between faith and law are seen by some people of faith as further reason to deny GLBT individuals and families full equality before the law.
At the blog Rightly Concerned, which is run by the anti-gay American Family Association, a May 3 posting pointed to Mcalpine’s arrest and declared that, "we will have to choose between homosexuality and religious liberty, because we can’t have both." Added the posting, "Every advance of the homosexual agenda comes at the expense of religious freedom. Every piece of turf taken by homosexual activists is turf taken from those who believe in freedom of conscience, speech and religious expression."
The posting declared, "Remember how we’ve been told that "hate crimes" laws do not punish speech? Well think again."
Under current hate crimes law in the U.K., people of faith are free to declare that gays are "sinful." An attempt to eradicate the religious exemption for hate speech was defeated by British lawmakers last year.
In Scotland, the Roman Catholic church issued a call for voters to elected Christian legislators in the run-up to last week’s election, reported News.Scotsman.com on April 4.
The instructional document, called The Westminster 2010 declaration, was approved on Easter Sunday by Cardinal Keith O’Brien, reported the news site, along with 29 other prominent Christians who were pushing back against a perception that civil government was becoming too secular. The declaration received mixed reviews from candidates, with one openly atheist politician, Patrick Harvie, telling the press that, "Politicians shouldn’t interfere with people’s private faith, and nor should bishops try to distort people’s political decisions." Added Harvie, ""Christianity was supposedly founded on peace and social justice, yet the priorities here are the usual culture war obsessions of the wingnut American religious right: anti-gay, anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia."
Clerics belonging to the Church of Scotland were also dubious. Said the Rev. Ian Galloway, "I think it is wrong to think of an homogenous Christian vote. There are many different political opinions within churches. For example in the Church and Society group we have members of all the main political parties."
The only federal law in the United States that extends protections to GLBTs punishes only violent actions, and not speech. However, anti-gay religious conservatives have attempted to portray the law as a form of "thought crimes" legislation, claiming falsely that clergy who denounce homosexuality from the pulpit could be arrested for their views.
Pro-equality leaders say that there is no reason the needs of GLTBs and the sensitivities of of religious followers cannot both be honored by the law. In the case of Dale Mcalpine, prominent U.K. GLBT equality activist Peter Tatchell rose to the street preacher’s defense, calling his arrest "heavy handed" and "a step too far."
"Although I disagree with Dale McAlpine and support protests against his homophobic views, he should not have been arrested and charged," said Tatchell. "Criminalization is a step too far. Despite my opposition to his opinions, I defend his right to freedom of expression."
Added Tatchell, "Soon after I offered to appear as a defence witness and to argue in court for Mr McAlpine’s acquittal, the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case. The sudden withdrawal of charges may have been mere coincidence but perhaps not." Either way, said Tatchell, "Mr McAlpine should have never been prosecuted in the first place. While the arresting officer may have acted with well-meaning intentions, he was over-zealous and interpreted the law in a harsh, authoritarian manner.
"Although clearly homophobic, Mr McAlpine did not express his opinion in a way that was aggressive, threatening or intimidating," Tatchell went on. "I am surprised and shocked that the CPS allowed the case to proceed at all. The Public Order Act is meant to protect people from harm. Dale McAlpine’s views are misguided and offensive, but I see no evidence that they caused harm to anyone."
Tatchell continued, "Prosecutions should only proceed in extreme circumstances. The police should concentrate on tackling serious, harmful crimes, such as racist, homophobic and sexist violence. Causing offence to others is not a legitimate basis for putting a person on trial." Noted Tatchell, "Freedom of speech means accepting the right of other people to say things that we may find disagreeable and even offensive. Unless people make untrue libellous comments or incite violence, they should not be criminalised for expressing their opinions."
As of 2:00 p.m. May 17, Rightly Concerned had not acknowledged Tatchell’s commentary or the dismissal of the case against Mcalpine.
Nor did Mcalpine acknowledge Tatchell’s speaking up on his behalf, according to media reports. A May 16 +Mail+Online)|Daily Mail article said that the prosecution had dropped the case due to a lack of evidence. Said Mcalpine, "This is a victory for freedom of speech. I hope we are not going down the road towards a police state and the thought police." Added Mcalpine, "I can’t wait to get out on to the streets again and preach the word of God."
Another strain of the American culture wars was also in evidence: the article said that Mcalpine was contemplating bringing suit against the police.