The recent acquittal of a Northern Ireland pastor of using ‘grossly offensive’ words during a sermon made available online made headline news recently. Pastor James McConnell was on trial for comments he made about Islam and though he was found not guilty, what is concerning is the reasoning behind the decision to acquit him.
In the sermon Pastor McConnell said ‘Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell’. We might think that this is why he found himself in Court, but strangely enough it wasn’t! Rather it was for the following: ‘People say there are good Muslims in Britain. That may be so, but I don’t trust them’. Those last five words were the allegedly ‘grossly offensive’ speech, for which Mr McConnell was facing up to six months in prison.
The prosecution accepted that characterising Islam as ‘heathen’ and ‘satanic’ would be theological views protected by human rights legislation. The Judge, however, indicated that such comments were grossly offensive in his view, but that he could not convict the pastor based on the prosecution’s concession. Had this concession not been made, it seems quite possible that there might have been a different result. Here is a strong message from a Law Judge about freedom of speech from the pulpit! There is no doubt that when a law Judge makes such a comment this will be progressed in some way and will be brought to bear in future cases which there will no doubt be.
After the trial Mr McConnell made it clear that he was standing against Islam as a belief, rather than individual Muslims. He also said that he loved Muslims, but he was against their theology and their beliefs. We would wholeheartedly support him in this.
Peter Lynas, National director for Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland, said that ‘the state should not stray into censoring church sermons or unwittingly creating a right not to be offended. At the same time, the Church must steward its freedom of speech wisely to present Christ in a gracious and appealing way. The good news about Jesus will prove offensive at times, but we must be careful not to add to that’.
So what does all this mean for us? We need to value free speech as long as we have it, we need to be measured in our free speech as we use it, and we may need to count the cost of practicing free speech given that society and the Court system is clearly moving swiftly along a road to stifle, silence and even slay Christian voices.
May we continue to speak the truth in love at all times and never fail to present Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour to all!
Your friend and Pastor
Rev Colin MacLeod