On this day… Christian beliefs on trial

On 24 June 2008, Anthony Rollins was preaching in Birmingham city centre. He was speaking, as he often did, to passers-by about the Lord Jesus Christ.

Over the course of the day he touched on a wide range of topics. As a Christian living in 21st century Britain, he noted that all sexual conduct outside marriage, including homosexual acts, are wrong.

It wasn’t a big part of what he was saying but it was enough. A member of the public took exception and proceeded to dial 999, while shouting “homophobic bigot”.

Arrested

It wasn’t long before two police officers arrived on the scene. With the law clearly on Anthony’s side, this should have been the end of the matter. Instead, armed with handcuffs and making no attempt to ascertain his side of the story, they arrested the calm and compliant Anthony.

Even after being detained for over three hours, he was still not asked for his version of events but was charged with breaching Section 5 of the Public Order Act nonetheless. Anthony said the whole experience left him feeling “anxious, shocked and very humiliated”.

anxious, shocked and very humiliated

Anthony Rollins

The charges were dropped long before trial.

Understandably upset about his ordeal, Anthony made an official complaint to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which they failed to uphold. In a civil action supported by The Christian Institute, Anthony sued West Midlands Police for wrongful arrest, unlawful imprisonment, assault and battery, and infringement of his human rights.

In a civil action supported by The Christian Institute, Anthony sued West Midlands Police for wrongful arrest, unlawful imprisonment, assault and battery, and infringement of his human rights.

He won on all counts.

Christians on trial

In his ruling, Judge Lance Ashworth QC criticised the police’s behaviour and said the arrest had been made “without any thought” being given to Mr. Rollins’ free speech and religious liberty. He added that the decision showed “a lack of thoughtfulness” on the part of the police.

A classic case of Christians being put on trial simply for their beliefs.

A classic case of Christians being put on trial simply for their beliefs.

Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. The law which affected Antony, also affected other believers. Many cases backed by our Legal Defence Fund were the result of the badly worded Section 5 offence. Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang from Liverpool were prosecuted under Section 5 for criticising Islam. And Jamie Murray was threatened with arrest because he displayed Bible verses in his café in Blackpool.

Out of concern for religious freedom, The Christian Institute spearheaded the Reform Section 5 campaign to get the word ‘insulting’ removed from Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

The National Secular Society, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, and others were heavily involved in the campaign, which also had the backing of comedy actor, Rowan Atkinson. He spoke in support of the campaign at a special meeting in Parliament.

Gospel freedom

The Government eventually backed down and agreed to change the law. Section 5 of the Public Order Act no longer catches so-called insulting words or behaviour.

The freedom to disagree and to challenge received wisdom lies at the heart of a democracy. It is essential that Christians continue to have the freedom to speak against the cultural consensus of our day.