Pastor cleared over sermon as judge backs right to 'offend, shock or disturb'
A born again Christian preacher accused of making grossly offensive remarks about Muslims has been cleared by a court in Northern Ireland.
Pastor James McConnell, 78, from Shore Road, Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, walked free from Belfast Magistrates' Court where he had faced a prosecution under the 2003 Communications Act.
Delivering his reserved judgment, District Judge Liam McNally said: "The courts need to be very careful not to criminalise speech which, however contemptible, is no more than offensive. It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances.
"Accordingly I find Pastor McConnell not guilty of both charges."
The high profile evangelical pastor had been charged with two alleged offences - improper use of a public electronic communications network and causing a grossly offensive message to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network - after the sermon delivered from the pulpit of his Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle on May 18 2014 was streamed online.
In it he described Islam as a "doctrine spawned in hell" and said he did not trust Muslims.
Although the words upon which the charges were based were offensive, they did not reach the high threshold of being "grossly offensive".
The judge added: "He is a man with strong, passionate and sincerely held beliefs. In my view Pastor McConnell's mindset was that he was preaching to the converted in the form of his own congregation and like-minded people who were listening to his service rather than preaching to the worldwide internet.
"His passion and enthusiasm for his subject caused him to, so to speak, 'lose the run of himself'."
The comments about Islam being "heathen" and "satanic" were protected under human rights legislation.
And when considering the remarks about mistrusting Muslims, Judge McNally said he was satisfied the pastor had not set out to intentionally cause offence.
If the preacher had qualified his remarks, as he did in subsequent media interviews, he could have been spared the legal battle, the court was told.
Judge McNally said: "If he had clarified this in his sermon and set out in a clear and precise way why Sharia law was repugnant to him he could have saved himself a lot of trouble.
"In the manner in which he did express this he has, in my view characterised the followers of an entire religion in a stereotypical way.
"Indeed when he uses the word 'may' in the context of whether there are any good Muslims it leaves open the inference that that might not be exactly right and there may not be any good Muslims in Britain. Either way, he is making it crystal clear that he does not trust any Muslim."
The judgment was delivered to a packed courtroom in just over half an hour.
The distinction between offensive and grossly offensive was an important one and not easily made, the court heard.
"Context and circumstances are highly relevant and as the European Court of Human Rights observed... the right to freedom of expression includes the right to say things or express opinions that offend, shock or disturb the state or any section of the population," said Judge McNally.
As the judge concluded a crowd of about 50 Christian supporters erupted into spontaneous applause.
Throughout proceedings Mr McConnell, who was dressed in a dark grey suit with grey shirt and pink and purple coloured tie, sat alongside his wife Margaret and other families members.
He was not required to sit in the dock.
During the three day trial in December, Mr McConnell spent more than an hour in the witness box giving evidence in his defence. He said he had not intended to provoke, hurt or offend anyone but was unrepentant for preaching the Christian gospel.
He also claimed he had refused the lesser punishment of an informed warning because it would be an insult to Jesus and he did not want to be "gagged" in the future.
The prosecution had claimed it was a "straightforward" case because the words were delivered in a rehearsed sermon to an audience of 2,000 and watched by 700 online, and had been carefully chosen.
Outside court hundreds of supporters cheered as Mr McConnell emerged.
Some sang hymns as the preacher gave his reaction to the judgement.
"I am very happy," he said.
He said he would do the sermon again, though word it differently.
"The only regret I have is the response from the Muslim community - that I was out to hurt them," he said.
"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."
He added: "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."
The pastor said he did not realise how far his sermon would travel.
"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," he said.
Mr McConnell also said he believed he had said "worse things" in other sermons that had been streamed on-line.
The acquittal has been hailed as a victory for common sense by some religious and political leaders.
Peter Lynas, national director of the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland, said: "Until the law is changed or clear guidance is issued, there will still be concern about further prosecution. The PPS (Public Prosecution Service) need to explain why this case was brought and assure everyone that this will not happen again.
"This case contains challenges to both the state and the church. It is vital that the state does not stray into the censorship of church sermons or unwittingly create a right not to be offended. Meanwhile, the church must steward its freedom of speech responsibly, so as to present Jesus in a gracious and appealing way to everyone."
Dr Norman Hamilton, convenor of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland's Council for Church in Society, said: "The right to express a point of view in a public setting, or in the public square, including the liberty to express strongly held beliefs, is one of the marks of a healthy democracy."
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, who attended some of the court hearings to support Pastor McConnell, described the prosecution as "vindictive and unnecessary" while the Ulster Unionist Party said people must be free to express themselves robustly, particularly in matters of faith.
In a statement, the PPS defended its decision to take the case to court.
A spokeswoman said: "It is clear from the judgement that the court considered Pastor McConnell had a case to answer and that the decision on whether the comment was offensive or grossly offensive was not only finely balanced but one for the court and the court alone to take.
"It is not the role of the public prosecutor to usurp the function of the court. The decision to bring this prosecution was entirely consistent with the duty of the PPS to put before the court those cases in which it is considered there is a reasonable prospect of a conviction."