Christians should not be afraid of quoting the Bible in public, the Director of The Christian Institute has said following the conviction of two street preachers in Bristol.
Colin Hart’s comments offer welcome reassurance after a public prosecutor told a court that quoting the King James Bible in modern British society must be considered “abusive” and “criminal”.
“It would be completely wrong for Christians to conclude that reading the KJV in public has suddenly become a criminal offence,” said Mr Hart.
Two street preachers, Michael Overd and Michael Stockwell, have been embroiled in a legal battle since July last year, when they were arrested and charged with a Public Order Offence after preaching in Bristol city centre.
The two men say they were merely preaching the gospel and answering questions on the difference between Islam and Christianity.
Their lawyer, Michael Phillips, told Bristol Magistrates Court that the prosecution was a “modern-day heresy trial – dressed up under the public order act”.
While in court, the defence argued that Overd and Stockwell have a legal and democratic right to preach and quote from the King James Bible in a public place.
In response, prosecutor Ian Jackson reportedly said: “Whilst it is right that if things are said in the Bible, they can be said to be an expression of religious belief – to use words translated in 1611 in a very different context, in the context of modern British society, must be considered to be abusive and is a criminal matter.”
He is later recorded saying: “To say to someone that Jesus is the only God is not a matter of truth. To the extent that they are saying that the only way to God is through Jesus, that cannot be a truth.”
Assessing Jackson’s remarks Mr Hart said: “We must not forget that strong protections for free speech still remain in our country.”
“There has been no change in the law in this area since 2014 when the word “insulting” was removed from Section 5 of the Public Order Act.
“Of course the law is not always correctly applied and the verdict in this case can be fully examined by a higher court.”
Free speech concerns
Andrea Williams, Chief Executive of Christian Concern – which is backing the men – called the prosecution’s language “extraordinary”.
“The Bible and its teachings are the foundation of our society and provided many of the freedoms and protections that we still enjoy today”, she said.
“So it is extraordinary that the prosecution, speaking on behalf of the state, could say that the Bible contains abusive words which, when spoken in public, constitute a criminal offence.”
She added: “In today’s democracy, we need the freedom to debate, challenge and disagree”.
Michael Overd and Michael Stockwell have been ordered to pay £2,016 each, in fines and costs. They will appeal the conviction.
The case against a third man, Adrian Clark, was dismissed on the grounds that there was no case to answer.