Saturday, 3 April 2010

Hellfire and homophobia

Well done Peter Tatchell, for sticking up for the Christian street preacher fined for 'homophobic remarks’ that were ‘aggravated by religious prejudice’. The perhaps unfortunately named Shawn Holes, an American Baptist evangelist touring Britain, was arrested for telling passers-by in Glasgow city centre that homosexuals deserved the 'wrath of God' and would go to hell.

As Peter says, however distasteful Mr. Holes' beliefs: 'The price of freedom of speech is that we sometimes have to put up with opinions that are objectionable and offensive.' He adds:

Just as people should have the right to criticise religion, people of faith should have the right to criticise homosexuality. Only incitements to violence should be illegal.

Quite. If we're going to start prosecuting people for expressing views that some find offensive, where will it end? The same law that's used to prevent fundamentalists articulating their hostility to homosexuality, abortion, etc, could just as easily be used by religious groups to stop secularists publicly criticising religion. We have to maintain the distinction (as I argued here) between legitimate criticism of ideas and stirring up hatred. Mr. Holes wasn't inciting the crowd to attack gays: he was happy to leave that to the judgement of what atheists would call his Imaginary Friend.

I suppose my only caveat, and where I might depart from the Tatchell line, is that I do have qualms about allowing unrestricted hellfire preaching in public places. I wouldn't prosecute preachers for expressing their personal prejudices, but I might restrict their activities on the grounds of disturbing public order. As I argued here, there's a sense in which the fundamentalist screaming damnation in the shopping centre is restricting my right to go about my business in peace. If we tolerate the Strict Brethren reminding us of our sins as we sip our lattes outside Starbucks, why not allow Islamist hate-preachers to vent their wrath in the public square?

Incidentally, one does wonder what's got into the police these days. First they take action against a legitimate TV documentary, then they harrass an innocent blogger and pay a visit to a Tory MP, now they arrest a Baptist preacher, all in the name of preventing 'religious prejudice'. Is Plod compensating for its own former reputation for racism and homophobia with this kind of over-reaction? Or is it the case that, when it comes to the difficult and sensitive issue of hate crimes, many officers just don't have the flexibility, judgement - dare I say intelligence? - to interpret the law in anything other than this hamfisted way?

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