by John Kersey
Today’s Daily Telegraph reports the treatment of an American street pastor who was arrested after preaching outside a Wimbledon shopping centre. Tony Miano, who in one of life’s little ironies is a former senior police officer, expounded a passage from Thessalonians which deals with sexual immorality and cited homosexuality as an example of contravention of the law of God.
A woman hearing this made a complaint to police, and two officers promptly arrested Mr Miano under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 which deals with “insulting words and behaviour”. As Mr Miano explained to the officers, Section 5 has recently been amended so that what is merely insulting is no longer to be an offence. However, despite having been passed by the House of Lords, this change has yet to come into law and the arresting officers claimed that they were unaware of it.
Mr Miano was subject to questioning at the police station concerning his beliefs about the nature of sin and the way he would treat homosexuals. The prospect of police officers discussing hamartiology, which is an abstract and complex area of theology, beggars belief. Mr Miano said, “As the questioning started it became apparent that the interrogation was about more than the incident that took place in the street but what I believed and how I think…I was being interrogated about my thoughts … that is the basic definition of thought police…It surprised me that it is possible for a person to be taken to jail for their thoughts.”
Mr Miano was told that police expected to charge him, but on referral to an inspector this position was reversed and he was released at midnight that day.
Andrea Williams, of the Christian Legal Centre, which provided Mr Miano with a solicitor, said: “We might joke about there being ‘thought police’ but this case shows that it has already become a reality. Sadly we are seeing cases like this increasingly often”. Given this, it is clear that Christians who intend to be public about the full nature of their faith should be aware of the existence of the Christian Legal Centre and its valuable work in support of those who are persecuted by our political establishment.
Street preaching is an ancient and honourable tradition in Christianity. The Sermon on the Mount is surely its most distinguished example. It also finds an extensive place in English history. Methodism would hardly have existed were it not for John Wesley and George Whitefield preaching in the open air to crowds far greater than a church could accommodate. But Mr Miano is not the first to encounter official opposition as he sets out on a much-needed mission to remind Britons of their Christian roots.
Pensioner Harry Hammond, who preached in Bournemouth holding a placard saying “Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism” was arrested and charged under Section 5 of the Public Order Act in 2001. He was convicted, his placards destroyed, and he died soon afterwards.
Philip Howard, who preached in “hellfire and brimstone” fashion for some years at Oxford Circus, was prosecuted for harassment of a passer-by in 2005, and cleared of all charges. The following year, Westminster Council applied for an ASBO in an attempt to silence him. This being granted, he moved to Brixton underground station where I understand he can still be found today.
New Yorker Shawn Holes, preaching in Glasgow, was fined £1000 after stating that homosexuals are going to Hell.
Stephen Green – now National Director of Christian Voice, a group with much to say on these matters – was arrested for handing out religious leaflets at a gay Mardi Gras festival in Cardiff in 2006; the charges against him were dropped.
In 2008, American preachers Arthur Cunningham and Joseph Abraham handed out leaflets and spoke with local youths in Birmingham. A PCSO, who was later given “corrective training”, allegedly told the preachers that if they returned to the predominantly Muslim area they would be beaten up.
The tide really appears to have started to turn with Cumbrian street preacher Dale McAlpine, who was arrested and charged under section 5 of the Public Order Act for stating that homosexuals were acting against the word of God. The charges against him were dropped, and he then won £7,000 plus costs in compensation from the police.
Then Anthony Rollins preached in Birmingham against effeminacy and homosexuality and was arrested and charged; in court he was awarded over £4,000 in damages.
Last year, Raj Bhachoo distributed anti-gay leaflets outside a Tesco store in Kent. His case was dismissed by the magistrates.
Against this background, it has been notable that leading gay activist Peter Tatchell has consistently opposed the prosecution of street preachers and has called for the reform of Section 5 of the Public Order Act. He has said,
“Several Christian and Muslim street preachers have been arrested in Britain for hate speech. Their crime? They said that homosexuality is immoral and that gay people will go to hell. I disagree with them but opposed their prosecution. What they were saying was hurtful but not hateful. They did not express their views in a bullying or menacing tone.
“Free speech is one of the hallmarks of a democratic society. It should only be restricted in extreme, compelling circumstances. Criminalising views that are objectionable and offensive is the slippery slope to censorship and to the closing down of open debate. It is also counter-productive. It risks making martyrs of people with bigoted opinions and deflects from the real solution to hate speech: education and rational debate. Hate speech should be protested and challenged, not criminalised.”
Mr Tatchell’s views are not dissimilar to those expressed by Mr Miano, who says, “I believe that every human being should have the right to speak their mind. Homosexuals should have the right to free speech, as should atheists, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. All I’m asking is that we are allowed to be part of the conversation and that society stops treating itself as tolerant when the authorities are intolerant to the Christian point of view.”
Society should indeed stop treating itself as tolerant. The prosecution and harassment by legal process of street preachers is a shameful slur on our tradition of freedom of speech and a thorough waste of public money. It is driven by an intolerant ideology that has no place in a civilized society and indeed is that society’s antithesis. It is this same ideology that listened to Abu Hamza preaching in the street outside Finsbury Park Mosque and did nothing to stop him.
Christian Voice has an explanation for how all this has come about, and it is one which is difficult to gainsay. They say, “It has come to this because our leaders try to run things in their own fallible wisdom. Even though our Queen was anointed to reign under the authority of God in the Name of Jesus Christ and given the Holy Bible as “the rule for the whole life and government of Christian princes,” her ministers have passed law after law in opposition to the will of God. They bear a huge responsibility for the way Britain has fallen into sin and misery. Good laws might not make men good, but they can restrain the wicked, and bad laws certainly encourage men to do evil.”