Police in Lancashire have told the owner of a Christian café to stop displaying Bible texts on a video screen, because it breaches public order laws.
Officers attended the Salt & Light Coffee House on Layton Road, Blackpool, on Monday 19 September, following a complaint about “insulting” and “homophobic” material.
The café’s owner, Mr Jamie Murray, says the officers did not specify which Bible texts had caused the offence.
He says the officers told him that displaying offensive or insulting words is a breach of Section 5 of the Public Order Act, and told him to stop displaying the Bible.
The Bible texts are displayed on a TV screen at the back of the café. Mr Murray uses a set of DVDs called the Watchword Bible.
The DVDs cycle through the whole of the New Testament verse by verse, with the words appearing on the screen. Mr Murray mutes the audio.
He told the police officers he would agree to stop displaying the Bible verses while he sought legal advice. After speaking with a lawyer, he is once again displaying the material.
The café’s name, Salt & Light, is a quote from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Christian leaflets are available in the café, and it has links with a local church.
Mr Murray is being supported by The Christian Institute, a national charity that defends the religious liberty of Christians.
There is widespread concern that the police are misusing the law to clamp down on words or material that others may find “insulting”. Civil rights groups worry about the impact on free speech.
The Christian Institute is calling for the word “insulting” to be removed from Section 5 of the Public Order Act – a proposal supported by the National Secular Society, two civil rights groups Liberty and Justice, and Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights.
A backbench amendment to remove the word “insulting” from the Section 5 offence has been tabled in the House of Commons as part of the Protection of Freedoms Bill. The Home Office has promised to consult on the change, but suggests the problem may be better dealt with by advice to police officers and improvements in police training.
Mr Murray said: “I couldn’t believe the police were saying I can’t display the Bible. The officers were not very polite, in fact they were quite aggressive. It felt like an interrogation.
“I said ‘surely it isn’t a crime to show the Bible?’ But they said they had checked with their sergeant and insulting words are a breach of Section 5 of the Public Order Act. I was shocked.
“I’m not here to insult or offend anyone, but the Bible is the Bible. We’re always being told that we’re a tolerant and diverse nation. Yet the very thing that gave us those values – Christianity – is being sidelined.
“I’m not looking to make a name for myself, I’d rather be quietly getting on with running my café. But there comes a time when you have to say enough is enough.”
The Christian Institute’s Head of Communications, Mike Judge, said: “We’ve all seen the police stand by while extremist Muslims hold placards calling for infidels to be beheaded, but woe betides a Christian café displaying Bible texts.
“Yes, the Bible speaks about morality, of course it does. But the Bible isn’t hate speech. Disagreement isn’t hatred. If a café customer dislikes parts of the Bible, the right response is to take their custom elsewhere – not dial 999.
“Will Lancashire Constabulary be publishing a police-approved Bible? Perhaps they could call it the PC-PC version. Haven’t they heard of free speech or religious liberty?”
In 2005 the same force, Lancashire Constabulary, paid out £10,000 compensation to Joe and Helen Roberts, an elderly Christian couple who had been investigated by the police for telling their council that they didn’t agree with homosexuality.
Mike Judge added: “I’d have thought Lancashire Constabulary would have learned their lesson after paying out £10,000 to a pair of Christian pensioners who they had interrogated over their views on gay rights.
“After that controversy they promised to review their procedures to stop this kind of nonsense. They broke that promise on Monday when their officers marched into the Christian café. The police may now be facing another costly legal action.
“This just shows why Section 5 of the Public Order Act needs a meaningful revision. The police clearly believe it gives them the power to clamp down on free speech – even to ban the Bible.”
Sam Webster, The Christian Institute’s in-house Solicitor-Advocate, said: “We will be advising Mr Murray of his legal options. He may well have grounds for a legal action against the police for infringing his rights to free speech and religious liberty.
“It ought to go without saying that reading the Bible out loud in a public place, or displaying Bible texts in a Christian café, is not of itself a criminal offence. I am alarmed that I even have to point that out.
“On the face of it, officers of Lancashire Constabulary appear to have said that such behaviour may fall within the scope of Section 5 of the Public Order Act. As a lawyer and a Christian, I find that deeply disturbing.”