Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Veteran Belfast preacher cleared

There's still some hope for free speech.

James McConnell, 78-year-old former senior pastor at Belfast Metropolitan Tabernacle, was yesterday found not guilty of making "grossly offensive" remarks about Islam.

District Judge Liam McNally said at the court in Belfast that while the words on which the charges were based were offensive, they did mot reach the high threshold of being "grossly offensive."

"The courts need to be very careful not to criminalise speech which, however contemptible, is no worse than offensive," he said. "It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances."

Mr McConnell described Islam as "satanic" and "a doctrine spawned in hell" in a sermon at the church. A video of his sermon was streamed on the church website. 

He made a public apology to anyone he might have unintentionally offended, but refused to accept a caution from the police. "The police tried to shut me up and tell me what to preach," he said. "It's ridiculous."

He was charged with improper use of a public electronic communications network and causing a grossly offensive message to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network. He denied the charges. "I didn't mean to offend anyone," he said. "I believe in free speech."

Mr McConnell had a Roman Catholic priest, a Muslim cleric and an MP lined up as defence witnesses. After several  preliminary hearings, the case was eventually heard in December, but the judge reserved his judgment until yesterday.

 In a separate matter, the Government is proposing registration and inspection by Ofsted of "intensive education" in out-of-school settings for more than six hours a week. This could affect churches, Christian holiday clubs and Christian camps. 

It could involve censorship of teaching which did not agree with "British values," such as the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, sexual ethics and the sanctity of human life.

Organisations and individuals are invited to send observations to the Department for Education by post or e-mail by next Monday, January 11. You will find details at the website of Christian Concern (

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