Carrying a placard which read, “Jesus Gives Peace, Jesus is Alive, Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism, Jesus is Lord,” sixty-nine-year-old street preacher Harry Hammond went into the center of Bournemouth on a Saturday afternoon in 2001. As he started to speak, a crowd surrounded him, pushed him to the ground, pulled down his banner, and threw water and soil on him.
The police arrived—and arrested Hammond for inciting his own assault. They did not arrest anyone who had assaulted him. In court, they said that they had been uncertain whether they should protect or arrest him. He was found guilty, and ordered to pay fines and costs totaling £695 (about $1,000). Soon after his conviction, he was hospitalized, and he died shortly thereafter.
The legislation used to arrest and convict Hammond was the Public Order Act 1986. The act holds that “A person is guilty of an offense if he . . . displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.” The defendant must “prove . . . that his conduct was reasonable.” A subsequent appeal by Hammond’s executors was denied by two judges of the High Court in London, who upheld the finding that his speech “went beyond legitimate protest” and that the need to maintain order overruled his rights to free speech under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights.
The first Public Order Act was passed in 1936 to prevent Oswald Mosley’s notorious Blackshirts from marching through the Jewish neighborhood in the East End of London. It prohibited groups “organised or trained or equipped for the purpose of enabling them to be employed in usurping the functions of the police or of the armed forces” and “enabling them to be employed for the use or display of physical force in promoting any political object, or in such manner as to arouse reasonable apprehension that they are organised and either trained or equipped for that purpose.” Those who drafted the original version of this act would be amazed to see its new application.
The 1986 version of the law was not intended to ban street-preaching like Hammond’s, but did not need to be redrafted for it to be used as the basis for his arrest. It was merely applied to suit the cultural and political agenda of the day. In the 1990s, the British government prioritized certain offenses, such as those considered homophobic, and the police responded by reinterpreting the existing law to include them.
The Hammond case first drew my attention to the gathering legal opposition to the Christian faith and the growing trend toward discrimination against Christians in general. In the subsequent ten years since the case, the interpretation of British law has further hardened against manifestations of Christian belief, bolstered by the attitude of publicly funded state organizations.
In 2005, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the primary state-sponsored media organization in the United Kingdom, televised Jerry Springer: The Opera. In the show, Jesus is presented as gay, in a nappy, and in a sexual relationship. The BBC received 55,000 complaints—its largest number ever—but asserted its commitment to freedom of speech. When one of those complainants attempted to sue, the BBC used taxpayers’ money to employ some of the most expensive barristers in England to win the case, and afterward the production company considered bankrupting the individual who had brought the action.
Some time later, Charles Moore, former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, appeared on Question Time, a BBC current-affairs program, and criticized the Muslim Council of Britain for thinking it was “a good thing, even an Islamic thing,” to kill British troops. Rather than defend Moore’s right to free speech, the BBC offered an immediate apology for any offense caused and paid £30,000 ($47,000) of taxpayers’ money to the council.
These sorts of double standards are evident in the legal as well as the media environment. The British government has strongly enforced hate-crime legislation but was happy to invite supporters of Hezbollah to the U.K. to address the police on “Political Islam.”
I have had direct experience of the ways in which the nature of public discourse about Christian faith has changed in the U.K. Toleration is now only granted to liberals and free speech is selectively sanctioned or withheld by the state. Our national heritage of political stability and genuine religious liberty is in real danger of collapse.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the courtroom. In one case in which I was involved, the court had limited witness statements to 2500 words. Mine came in just under that limit, while the barristers for the other side submitted 11,000 words. The judge then changed the limit to 7500, and proceeded to allow my opponent to criticize me for providing a short witness statement. This sort of behavior and the often hostile attitudes of the court make unfair judgments all the more crushing.
I am treated very differently in court when I am not defending a Christian who is expressing his beliefs. For example, I recently represented a client who had murdered someone for £20 ($30) and the judge treated me cordially and with respect.
In 2005, however, I represented Stephen Copsey, a Christian who had been dismissed from his job because he would not regularly work on a Sunday. During the hearing, the judge aggressively asked Mr. Copsey to show him “where in the Bible it says you can be lazy and not work on a Sunday, and your colleagues have to cover for you.” After an extended period of silence, Copsey answered, “The Ten Commandments, number four.”
The court and attendant media all broke into laughter. The judge maintained a very cold attitude toward Copsey, and the court eventually found against him, holding that he was not dismissed for wishing to treat the Sabbath day as a day of rest, but because he failed to attend work.
Prior to the introduction of the Human Rights Act in 1998, I had won every Sunday working case in which I had represented a Christian who wished to uphold the Sabbath, but the introduction of the Act, with its political agenda, has warranted discriminating against Christians who wish to act and speak out on the basis of their convictions.
Nadia Eweida, an employee of British Airways, was suspended for refusing to remove a cross the size of a penny, which she wore on a chain around her neck. In representing her in court, I presented evidence that British Airways permitted some of her colleagues to wear religious items such as the hijab, the turban, and the Sikh ponytail.
Nevertheless, the court held there was no discrimination against her (and therefore against Christians) because a person from any other faith, or none, would also have been suspended for wearing a cross. On this tenuous basis, the court held that the airline was treating all employees the same and was not treating Eweida differently. When the case came before the Court of Appeal, the judges asked for evidence that Christians wear crosses, apparently unaware of the practice.
This case, Eweida v. British Airways, received considerable media attention. Prime Minister Tony Blair commented at the time that the airline should “just do the sensible thing” and allow Eweida to wear her cross. The case has forced British Airways to amend its employee policy and is currently before the European Court of Human Rights.
In 2011, I acted for a couple who had been barred from foster parenting because of their Christian convictions. In Johns v. Derby City Council, one of the presiding judges, Mr. Justice Munby, held that Judeo-Christian values could be classed as “inimical” to the interests of a child; such values might not be in the “best interests” of the child. The court held that Eunice and Owen Johns could be barred from fostering children because they would refuse to tell a child that a homosexual life was acceptable.
The state-funded Equality and Human Rights Commission asserted that it was the duty of the state to protect vulnerable children from becoming “infected” (their word) with Judeo-Christian values. The commission has since said that this word was used by mistake, but their representative did not take it back in court when challenged.
Despite the increasing hostility against Christians expressing their faith in public, there have also been some victories in court. Earlier this year, I was able to represent Michael Overd, a preacher who was arrested under the same Public Order Act that condemned Harry Hammond and who like him was accused of “inciting his own arrest”—a phrase I regularly hear from those who don’t like the consequences of the right to free speech.
He was cleared of “verbally abusing” two homosexual men who heard him quoting from a passage in 1 Corinthians that speaks of the sinful not inheriting the kingdom of God. In his defense, I presented the fact that he was merely quoting from the Bible and that his intention was to make converts and not to insult anyone; he was not therefore directly condemning homosexuality. The right to evangelize is seen as a component of free speech (which is protected), rather than a religious issue, and the court found for my client.
My experiences have left me in no doubt that it is becoming ever more difficult for Christians in Britain to speak and act in accordance with their convictions. However, there are specific responses that we can make to this challenge.
First, the Human Rights Act can be revised. One sensible reform that ought to be acceptable to everyone would be to introduce a “duty of mutual respect” as a statutory principle. This would establish that, while there should be no discrimination in the providing of services, service will not be considered denied if someone else can provide it. In a recent case in which motel owners did not wish to provide a room to a same-sex couple because it offended their religious conscience, for example, the owners would not have been charged with discrimination if the couple could find alternative accommodation nearby, as they could have done.
Second, Britain could borrow the principle of the free exercise of religion from the United States. Currently, matters of faith are tested in the British courts under discrimination law. We should, rather, have a simple test of what is religious belief and whether we should permit its manifestation.
The third response is linked to the fact that Christian religious belief is now so undermined in the U.K. that a new act would be necessary to restore its place in our society and in our law. This could be akin to America’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which is aimed at preventing laws that might inhibit a person’s free exercise of his faith.
More generally, Christians everywhere can and should speak out at all levels, working with organizations that support Christian rights, through elected representatives, through participation in consultations, and, where appropriate, through public protest. We owe that to witnesses like Harry Hammond.
Paul Diamond is a practicing barrister in Cambridge, England.