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'Heathen sermon' trial levity in court brings some relief to complex legal arguments

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 16/12/2015

Pastor James McConnell arrives at Belfast Magistrates Court yesterday with his wife Margaret and daughter Linda
Pastor James McConnell arrives at Belfast Magistrates Court yesterday with his wife Margaret and daughter Linda
Pastor James McConnell arrives at Belfast Magistrates Court yesterday with his wife Margaret and daughter Linda
Pastor James McConnell arrives at Belfast Magistrates Court yesterday with his wife Margaret and daughter Linda

Following an opening day that heard gospel singing, yesterday court number 12 reverberated to the sounds of Fleetwood Mac.

"We're hearing a wide variety of music in this court," District Judge Liam McNally observed.

A section of Don't Stop, the rock group's hit single from the Rumours album, had been inadvertently included in a radio clip played to the court.

The prosecution lawyer's interest was on what came afterwards.

It was a recording of two interviews with Pastor James McConnell and his solicitor Joe Rice by BBC presenter Enda McClafferty.

Soon after the Talkback clip was played, the prosecution case drew to a close.

It was followed by an unsuccessful bid from Pastor McConnell's legal team to have the matter thrown out.

A packed gallery listened intently to the various legal arguments.

There has been significant public interest in this case, and yesterday was no different.

By 9.30am - an hour before its scheduled start time - the queue outside was more than 40 deep.

When the doors opened 30 minutes later, it snaked half-way down the corridor.

One of the people in the queue remarked, with a note of worry: "Do you think we'll get a seat inside?"

Outside, Pastor McConnell arrived linking arms with his wife and daughter.

Behind, two people clutched a large banner displaying a message from Psalm 105 which said: 'Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm.'

Inside, he greeted the waiting audience, moving along, shaking hands, thanking them for their support.

He then made his way into the courtroom, waving and raising his thumb to the gallery, before taking his seat alongside his family.

Prosecuting counsel David Russell took barely 30 minutes to conclude the case against the 78-year-old firebrand preacher.

The next two hours were dominated by complex legal argument as defence barrister Philip Mateer QC sought to have the case dismissed.

At one stage he observed the difficulties faced by Christians in modern society.

"You will be aware of the people who were brought to this court for refusing to put a slogan on a cake - something that offended their particular views," he said, referring to the Ashers case where a Christian-run bakery was prosecuted for refusing to make a cake celebrating gay marriage.

"I think I've enough on my plate, Mr Mateer, without you going back on the cake case," Mr McNally responded, to laughter from the gallery.

Amid the complex arguments in the courtroom, there were moments of much-needed light relief.

At one point Mr Mateer referred to William Penn, the Quaker leader who fought religious oppression and founded the colony of Pennsylvania, later to become the state of the same name.

Mr Mateer explained how Penn was arrested in the streets, brought before a court and tried. When the jury refused to convict him, they were locked up without food until they did find him guilty.

"The good old days, Mr Mateer," joked the judge, drawing more laughter.

Later, Mr Mateer said Pastor McConnell had not set out to offend.

The judge referred to comments about Henry VIII, described by Pastor McConnell in his May 2014 sermon as an "auld reprobate".

"He didn't miss out on Henry VIII," the judge noted.

Mr Mateer replied: "He's in good company - the Pope also did not think very highly of Henry VIII."

Approaching the conclusion of his application, which lasted almost 90 minutes, the judge enquired whether he was nearly finished.

"Anything else Mr Mateer?" he inquired.

The barrister replied: "I'm trying to condense…"

"I'm trying to get you to do that as well," the judge responded. Eventually he did finish.

Mr Russell's submission was shorter, lasting just over 30 minutes.

He argued the pastor's remarks were clearly capable of being grossly offensive.

In the end it didn't matter. The judge dismissed the application. It means a trial that has gripped Northern Ireland will run into another day.

Belfast Telegraph

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