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 1860with reference
to my own experience of being convicted under this legislation,
following a brief, peaceful protest in Canterbury Cathedral in
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
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
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
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
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 Christianityor attempted to permanently hate the church
servicethen 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
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 unlawfulno matter how brief and peaceful. Freedom
of speech and the right to protestwhich are enshrined in
the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rightsdo
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 dissentnot 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
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 rightand
the right of othersto 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