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High Court upholds conviction of Evangelical preacher

02 November 2006

A PREACHER who provoked a hostile reaction from members of the public by displaying slogans against homosexuals was guilty of insulting behaviour contrary to the Public Order Act 1986, the High Court has ruled. It dismissed an appeal against the conviction of the late Harry John Hammond at Wimborne Magistrates’ Court in April 2002.

Mr Hammond died in August 2002, and his executors were given permission to try to clear his name by appealing to the High Court.

Mr Hammond had preached in public for more than 20 years, and the magistrates accepted that he was an Evangelical Christian with deeply held and sincere beliefs. On Saturday 13 October 2001, he preached in the centre of Bournemouth, holding a large double-sided sign bearing the words “Stop immorality”, “Stop Homosexuality”, and “Stop Lesbianism”.

The sign also contained the words “Jesus gives peace”, “Jesus is alive” and “Jesus is Lord”.

A crowd of about 30 to 40 people gathered, and some of them became angry and aggressive. Someone tried to pull the sign away from Mr Hammond, and a struggle took place. Two police officers arrived, but Mr Hammond refused to stop displaying the sign. One of the police officers thought police intervention was unnecessary, but the other thought Mr Hammond was provoking violence, and arrested him for a breach of the peace.

The magistrates ruled that the sign was insulting and caused distress to those who were present, and that Mr Hammond was aware of that. He was fined £300 and was ordered to pay £395 towards the prosecution costs. The sign was forfeited.

His executors argued that the magistrates’ conclusion that the sign was insulting was unsustainable, and that Mr Hammond was denied his right to freedom of expression, contrary to article 10 of the Human Rights Convention.

The prosecutor argued that if Mr Hammond wanted to persuade others to his point of view, he could have done so simply by his “preaching”, that is, by what he was saying. The words on the sign were not presented as a piece of religious preaching or teaching, as, for example: “The Bible says homosexuality is sinful,” or even just “Homosexuality is a sin”.

The sign, the prosecutor argued, was not a necessary adjunct to Mr Hammond’s right to freedom of expression, but was a gratuitous insult to those who had a lifestyle that was not unlawful, but was different from his own. These others, too, were entitled to have their lifestyle respected.

Lord Justice May, sitting with Mr Justice Harrison in the Queen’s Bench Divisional Court, said that the magistrates were entitled to conclude that the words on the sign were insulting, not least because the sign implied that homosexuals and lesbians were immoral.

The restriction on Mr Hammond’s right to freedom of expression had the legitimate aim of preventing disorder, and was a proportionate response in view of the fact that his behaviour went beyond legitimate protest and was provoking violence and disorder.

They ruled that there was therefore no breach of his rights under article 10. The conviction was upheld.

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