Police in Lincolnshire have threatened to arrest an atheist who displayed a poster in a window saying, all “religions are fairy stories”.
But The Christian Institute has joined with others in criticising the police’s actions as yet another example of misusing Section 5 of the Public Order Act.
Officers told 89-year-old John Richards, who has vowed to return the sign to the window, that he could face arrest if a passer by complains that the sign causes ‘alarm or distress’.
Simon Calvert, of The Christian Institute, said: “It seems the police again reached for the notoriously over-broad Section 5 of the Public Order Act which outlaws ‘insulting words or behaviour’.
“Christians who have themselves been on the wrong-end of Section 5 would sympathise strongly with Mr Richards.
“It is an intimidating experience for law-abiding people to be told by officers that their beliefs are against the law. Even where no arrest is ever made, it exerts a dangerous chilling effect on free speech.”
Mr Richards said: “The police said I could be arrested if somebody complained and said they were insulted, but the sign was up two years ago and nobody responded or smashed the window.”
He added: “I accept that the police emphasised the words could lead to an arrest but the implication is a threat to free speech which surely should be fought.”
The encounter comes as a campaign to remove the word “insulting” from Section 5 of the Public Order Act gathers pace.
The Reform Section 5 campaign is supported by MPs from all parties. It is being backed by The Christian Institute and the National Secular Society.
Commenting on Mr Richards’ case Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: “These kind of cases are completely over the top.”
And Pavan Dhaliwal, of the British Humanist Association, said the case “shows how subjective the law is, and how it has the real potential to stifle free speech.”
In a statement Lincolnshire Police said: “In the majority of cases where it was considered that an offence had been committed, the action taken by the officer would be to issue words of advice and request that the sign be removed.
“Only if this request were refused might an arrest be necessary.”