PASTOR James McConnell, a 78-year-old Evangelical preacher who was accused on two counts of making grossly offensive comments about Islam from his North Belfast pulpit in 2014 (News, 18/25 December), was acquitted by a judge on Tuesday.
The Pastor, who is now retired, had described Islam as "heathen, satanic, and a doctrine spawned in hell" during an address that he delivered at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in May 2014. He had also said that he did not trust Muslims. He was charged with two offences under the Communications Act 2003.
The sermon had been broadcast on the internet. Mr McConnell was accused of improper use of a public electronic communications network, and of causing a grossly offensive message to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network.
In the wake of public outrage, Mr McConnell apologised for his remarks, and said that he had nothing against Muslims.
The prosecution had argued that Mr McConnell’s comments were not "a slip of the tongue"; he was on trial, not for his beliefs, but for using words that were allegedly grossly offensive.
The defence said, however, that the case essentially revolved around five words in an hour-long religious service, and that Mr McConnell was a man with an unblemished record who should be recognised for his good work in society rather than be convicted in court.
District Judge Liam McNally said: "The courts need to be very careful not to criticise 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."
Before the hearing on Tuesday, Mr McConnell said that, if he were convicted, he would refuse to pay any fine, which could have led to his receiving a prison sentence in the future.