Church’s anti-gay advert was freedom of expression: judge
A High Court judge has quashed an adjudication that a controversial advertisement which proclaimed sodomy an “abomination” was homophobic.
Mr Justice Treacy held that the Advertising Standards Authority's decision disproportionately interfered with Sandown Free Presbyterian Church's rights to freedom of expression.
His verdict was described by the minister of the Belfast church, the Rev David McIlveen, as a landmark ruling enabling Biblical scripture to be quoted.
Sandown launched judicial review proceedings against the ASA after being found to be in breach of its code of practice.
The case centred on a full-page advert taken out in a newspaper ahead of a Gay Pride parade in Belfast in August 2008.
It was headlined, ‘The word of God against sodomy’, and invited people to meet for a peaceful Gospel witness against the act.
After receiving seven complaints that the notice was homophobic, the ASA ruled it could not appear again in the same form. It also told the church to take more care in future to avoid causing serious offence.
Sandown's legal team argued its rights to religious belief and freedom of expression under European law had been breached.
They also claimed the church was not offered the chance to give an explanation before the ban was imposed, along with a case based on conflicting ideologies.
Sandown argued that the ASA got it wrong in its interpretation of a quotation from the Book of Leviticus which branded homosexual acts an abomination.
According to the church, the description applied to sodomy itself rather than any individuals.
In his ruling yesterday, Mr Justice Treacy stressed the context of the advertisement was important.
He pointed out that at the previous year's Gay Pride march a banner stating Jesus Is A Fag was carried, uninterrupted, by one of the participants.
The judge noted that the advertisement contained no exhortation to violence and that it also made clear how violent antagonism towards homosexuals was unacceptable and unjustifiable.
He said: “The applicant's religious views and the Biblical scripture which underpins those views no doubt cause offence, even serious offence, to those of a certain sexual orientation.
“Likewise, the practice of homosexuality may have a similar effect on those of a particular religious faith.
“But Article 10 (of the European Convention on Human Rights) protects expressive rights which offend, shock or disturb.
“Moreover, Article 10 protects not only the content and substance of information but also the means of dissemination, since any restriction on the means necessarily interferes with the right to receive and impart information.”