Belfast pastor James McConnell who went on trial for preaching “grossly offensive” sermon acquitted of all charges
McConnell stood accused of “improper use of public electronic communications network” – meaning the Internet – to broadcast an allegedly “grossly offensive” sermon in May 2014, in which the pastor described Islam as “satanic.”
In his verdict yesterday, District Judge Liam McNally said that it was not the job of the court to censor offensive speech.
“It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances. Accordingly, I find Pastor McConnell not guilty of both charges.”
Erring on the side of free speech, Judge McNally is clear: McConnell should never have been prosecuted for stating an opinion, regardless of whether or not it caused offence.
Since June 2015, when it was announced that McConnell would be charged with a crime, the possibility that Judge McNally would deliver a guilty verdict has been cause for concern, one shared by freethinking theists and nontheists alike.
In an interview with the man himself, McConnell framed the charges levelled against him as both a matter of religious principle and as a matter of free speech.
“I’m not taking it lying down. I am not going to be gagged. The police tried to shut me up and tell me what to preach. It’s ridiculous. I believe in freedom of speech. I’m going to keep on preaching the gospel.”
Not one to climb down from his convictions, McConnell declined an “informed warning” that would have avoided a prosecution. Faced with the inevitable, he rose to the occasion, with good humour and generosity of spirit demonstrating exactly what kind of man he is.
A devout Christian who is not so blinded by his beliefs that he would deny others the right to express an opposing belief. A strident free speech advocate who for all his religious fervour turns out to be more enlightened in his views than Northern Ireland’s supposedly enlightened liberal left, whose “progressive pieties” – in the words of Suzanne Breen – “don’t extend to defending an evangelical preacher with unfashionable opinions.”
In a trial rife with unintended ironies, none garnered more attention than the appointment of Belfast Islamic Centre spokesman Dr Raied Al-Wazzan as chief witness for the prosecution. In January last year, Dr Al-Wazzan found himself in hot water when he said Islamic State, the terrorist group that has carried out mass executions and forced millions of people to flee their homes, had been a positive force in Mosul, his home city in Iraq.
As he told BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme:
“Since the Islamic State took over, it has become the most peaceful city in the world. Yes there are other things going wrong there…they are murdering people, I agree, but you can go from east to west of the city without fear. My family is living there at the moment and that’s what they are telling me.”
To recap: the person leading the charge against a Christian pastor for speaking ill of the Islamic faith believes Islamic State is creating a modern utopia. If you weren’t offended already, this is your opportunity to take offence.
The trial took place over three days in December. Perhaps befitting a legal landmark, the scene outside Belfast magistrates’ court on day one was something of a media circus.
Arriving at court, McConnell was met by TV crews and politicians. A mixed crowd of supporters consisting of atheists and born again Christians held up placards bearing the messages “civil and religious liberty for all” and “protect our free speech.”
Inside the courthouse, more than 100 people packed the public gallery. During a playback of the “grossly offensive” sermon, which included a number of gospel songs, supporters swayed in their seats, clapped their hands and tapped their feet.
On the final day, Judge McNally decided to reserve judgment until January. Lest there’s any suspicion he arrived at this decision to save ruining Christmas for the defendant, McConnell was acquitted of all charges when he returned to court on January 5.
Speaking after the ruling, McConnell said he was “happy that there is liberty to preach the Gospel,” before adding that his only regret was the response from the Muslim community, that he “was out to hurt them.”
I’ll sign-off by permitting what the censors of the world would deny and let McConnell say his piece without interruption.
“There was no way I was out to hurt them – I wouldn’t hurt a hair on their head. But what I am against is their theology and what they believe in. If there are Muslims out there, I want to assure them I love them and, if they need help, I am there to help them, but their theology and their beliefs, I am totally against them.
“I would do it again but I would word it differently because I would be conscious I was hurting innocent Muslims, I would be conscious I was hurting Muslims who have come here to work hard and are doing their best—there’s no way I would hurt those people, but I would do it again, yes.
“As far as I was concerned I was preaching to my own people, I was preaching in my own church – I didn’t realise it would go out there and so forth.”