Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Letter from Peter Tatchell


  Here is my submission to the Select Committee on Religious Offences. It sets out the case for repealing the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860—with reference to my own experience of being convicted under this legislation, following a brief, peaceful protest in Canterbury Cathedral in 1998.

  My conviction illustrates, I believe, the sweeping, draconian powers of the 1860 Act to suppress criticism, dissent and protest. Hence my submission in favour of repeal.

  The background to my protest and subsequent conviction is that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, had for many years publicly advocated the suppression of lesbian and gay human rights. Indeed, on a number of occasions he incited MPs and peers to vote against gay equality and in favour of discrimination, most notably on the issue of the age of consent.

  For eight years, lesbian and gay organisations had attempted to have a dialogue with the Archbishop. But he was unwilling to listen to the concerns of the homosexual community.

  Dr Carey refused to meet any gay organisations. He would not even meet the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, many of whose members belong to his own Anglican Communion. When Dr Carey repeatedly slammed the door on all attempts at dialogue, confronting him became the only option.

  This is the background and context of the Easter Sunday protest.

  On Easter Sunday 1998, myself and six other members of the gay rights group, OutRage!, walked into the pulpit of Canterbury Cathedral soon after the Archbishop began his sermon.

  We deliberately waited until the sacred parts of the service were over. We did not storm, run or climb into the pulpit. We walked into it, in the same calm manner that the Archbishop had done half an hour earlier.

  The Archbishop was not threatened or physically molested in any way.

  We held up placards and I addressed the congregation, criticising Dr Carey's opposition to an equal age of consent, same-sex marriage, the fostering of children by gay couples, and protection for lesbians and gay men against employment discrimination.

  The Archbishop was not shoved or pushed aside. I merely stood beside him and spoke to the congregation.

  We did not insult or abuse the Archbishop or the Christian faith. Our placards and my words stated the fact that the Archbishop advocates the denial of human rights to lesbian and gay people.

  The protest remained entirely peaceful and was over in three minutes.

  Although the service was temporarily interrupted, there was no intention or attempt to prevent it from taking place or to prevent it from being completed. We did not stop members of the congregation from exercising their right to worship. The service continued after we left.

  I was arrested by police officers in the congregation, and escorted by them from the cathedral. My OutRage! colleagues left voluntarily, as I had also planned to do (had I not been arrrested).

  I was taken to Canterbury police station, where I was detained for six hours. Because the police could not, at that stage, find a "suitable" charge, I was released without charge.

  Eventually, some weeks after the protest, I was charged with "indecent behaviour" in a church, contrary to the 1860 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act (ECJA).

  It is, of course, wholly inappropriate for the ECJA to categorise criticism and protest as indecency. This term has connotations of sexual misbehaviour. It is misleading and encourages misunderstanding. There was, of course, nothing sexually indecent about my protest. I merely fell foul of the wording and interpretation of the ECJA, whereby any unscheduled intervention during a church service is deemed "indecent".

  On 30 November 1998, my trial began at Canterbury Magistrates Court.

  In my defence, I argued that the right to free speech and peaceful protest should not stop at the door of a church. It would be wrong for the law to treat me as a criminal for merely criticising the Archbishop of Canterbury in his Cathedral.

  If I had abused, threatened or insulted Dr Carey or Christianity—or attempted to permanently hate the church service—then there might have been a legitimate case for my prosecution under public order legislation. But I did none of these things.

  Clergy should not be able to advocate discrimintion against their fellow citizens and then be legally protected against all and any criticism in a church. This is what the ECJA enshrines in statute: it makes religious people, including those who promote prejudice and intolerance, immune from criticism in places of worship.

  The following day, 1 December 1988, the Magistrate, Michael Kelly, gave his verdict: guilty.

  Given the existence of the ECJA and its wide-ranging powers, he had little alternative. But when passing sentence he appeared to express his disapproval of the ECJA and the prosecution. Although the sentence could have included both a large fine and a term of imprisonment, I was fined a mere £18.60.

  Aside from my own particular experience, the case for the repeal of the ECJA is a strong one.

  Under the ECJA, the key provisions of which were previously part of the Brawling Act 1551, any action that disturbs a place of worship is deemed indecent and criminal.

  This means that even the mildest protest in a church is unlawful—no matter how brief and peaceful. Freedom of speech and the right to protest—which are enshrined in the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights—do not exist on ecclesiastical property, according to the ECJA.

  The Church consequently enjoys privileged protection against protest. No other institution has such draconian, sweeping powers to suppress dissent—not even parliament.

  This effectively curtails free speech and the right to protest, which are fundamental human rights and the litmus test of a democratic society.

  Why should there be one law for places of worship and another law for everywhere else?

  The special, unique legal rights afforded to religions under the ECJA should be removed. Churches and other places of worship should be subject to the same law as the rest of society.

  The ECJA violates free speech and the right to protest. It should be repealed.

  There is ample alternative legislation to cover insulting, offensive or threatening behaviour in churches or other places of worship. The provisions of the Public Order Act are adequate and effective for this purpose.

  With regard to the interpretation and enforcement of public order legislation:

  Protests that interrupt solemn occasions may be disagreeable, but providing they are brief and peaceful there is no justification for criminalising them, irrespective of whether they are perpetrated by gay rights campaigners in a chuch or by religious fundamentalists at a gay commemoration.

  Democracy involves tolerating opinions and protests that some people regard as offensive and insulting. That is what freedom of expression is all about: the right to say things that other people find objectionable.

  I have several times defended the right of religious homophobes to protest at gay events, when police officers have attempted to arrest them. The law should likewise respect my right—and the right of others—to express criticism and dissent in places of worship, providing it is brief and peaceful.

  I therefore urge you to support the repeal of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860.

14 July 2002

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