Civil Liberties

To preach Leviticus 20:13 now constitutes a public order offence


There is much to be mocked about street preachers. The world has become intolerant of compact megaphones in the market place, boorishly denouncing sin and declaring the coming judgment of God. And sandwich boards proclaiming that the end is nigh scarcely fit any modern (or postmodern) model of missiological engagement. You certainly won’t find it as a validated mission module in any theological college, except perhaps in the context of the historic inducements and origins of revival.

Street preachers are offensive. They purposely set out to be, for to preach the cross of Christ in the public square is to offend against man-made moral codes and the norms of civil society. To confront the sinner with the spiritual poverty of his petty existence is to invite scorn and insult, if not physical harm. You don’t expect to have your feelings hurt while you’re minding your own business walking through Leicester Square munching on a McDonald’s. But the evangelical irritants persist because they believe they have been called by God to proclaim the Day of Salvation to a lost generation. And time is short.

How successful this model of mission may be is unknown, if not unknowable. It isn’t concerned with numbers of converts or depths of discipleship, but with measurements of sermon duration and literature distribution. If you can last two hours of preaching and hand out a hundred gospel tracts, the Lord has blessed your ministry. If you can engage three people in a conversation and talk about accepting Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour, the Lord has seriously blessed your ministry. Who knows what seeds have been sown on fertile soil?

The case of Regina v Michael Overd heard in the Taunton Magistrates’ Court on 11th March 2015 is a curious one. Mr Overd had been accused of, inter alia, using threatening language in his preaching against homosexuality on the streets of Taunton, and was reported to the police by a homosexual Christian whose feelings, it seems, had been hurt (he felt “belittled” and “ashamed”). Another passing witness, a Mr Nigel Marley who “was visiting UNISION HQ.. (and) had just done diversity training”, said Mr Overd was “belligerent and angry”, though Mr Marley “did not remember the exact words being used”.

All of which makes the Crown Court Judgment, issued by Judge Shamim Ahmed Qureshi on 23rd March, even more than curious. Indeed, it is an offence against freedom of speech, if not a fundamental denial of religious liberty.

No one will dispute that the Bible says some nasty things about certain aspects of human behaviour. And since, in this pluralised postmodern era, so much of minority identity is bound up with deeply-held feelings of nature and assertions of ‘rights’, to criticise an attitude or behavioural ethic is to offend against someone’s subjective norm or to commit a crime against the spiritual PC zeitgeist. It just isn’t very nice to be told that your weekly binge-drinking leads to damnation; or that having sex with your girlfriend is sin; or that exaggerating your expenses claim is a sure path to hell. Nor is it particularly convenient for homosexual men (or, presumably, women, and undoubtedly, the bisexual) to be told that ‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads‘ (Lev 20:13). Unless, of course, you say it lovingly.

Which is (more or less, though some may demur) what Mr Overd did, for he purposely omitted the second sentence in his preaching, preferring instead to focus on the offence that the behaviour is to God. It is not, it must be noted, his personal opinion on the matter: he is quoting verbatim from the Bible, adhering to a literal, universal and enduring interpretation of the Levitical holiness code. You may not agree with that hermeneutic, but that is for you to take up face-to-face with Mr Overd (or via the comment thread below). As the Judge notes, “As far as (Mr Overd) is concerned, he is preaching the Gospel.” He adds later: “He has clearly not studied religion deeply enough to comprehend it fully but has accepted whatever others taught him about his religion.. He is clearly selective in his arguments and is blind to any negative points in his own religion.” And there is much evidence of this in Mr Overd’s sometimes painfully injudicious and inconsistent responses to cross examination by the prosecution.

But biblical ignorance and theological superficiality are not crimes. Nor is proclaiming that ignorance or superficiality in the public square.

Yet Judge Qureshi insists that if Mr Overd wishes to preach against homosexuality, he may use Leviticus 18:22 (which is identical to the first sentence of Leviticus 20:13), but he may not use Leviticus 20:13 even if he omits the second sentence (ie Leviticus 18:22). This is a bizarre ruling. It seems that the omission of the second sentence does not mitigate the allegation of ‘threatening’ language, because, the Judge says, “the words he did use have to be put into context with his behaviour which the prosecution allege is threatening”. Ergo, to say that God detests a man having sexual relations with another man may be permissible, except when it is broadcast loudly via megaphone such that he may “upset other Christians” (which Judge Qureshi says is the issue). “Informing people of their fate in the Hereafter is not a criminal offence but threatening them in this world is,” he says. The fact that Leviticus 20:13 has additional ‘context’, and that context is threatening “in this world”, appears to transgress the acceptable boundaries of freedom of speech.

This is not a blog apologetic in support of Mr Overd’s preferred model of doing mission. Nor is it any kind of affirmation of his (poor) grasp of the purpose of Old Testament law, or of his (superficial) grasp of eschatological significance of the irruption of God into the world 2000 years ago. Why Christians persist in preaching this bit of Leviticus while (conveniently) ignoring so much more of the holiness code is the 64,000-treasure-in-heaven question.

This blog is, however, a categorical assertion of Mr Overd’s freedom to quote in public from whichever parts of the Bible he wishes, and if people are offended by the jots and tittles of the Word of God, well, that’s just tough. If you believe Mr Overd to be a crank, by all means tell him. But it was the judgment of Lord Justice Sedley in 1999 that people should be free to express such views, and he quoted Socrates and two famous Quakers in his defence of that freedom. He said: “Free speech includes not only the offensive, but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative, providing it does not tend to provoke violence.”

Mr Overd was not inciting anyone to violence, and yet Judge Qureshi has challenged Lord Justice Sedley’s ruling head-on by effectively finding Mr Overd guilty of using threatening words despite the contextual earthly judgment never having passed his lips. Judge Qureshi ruled:

If Leviticus 20:13 is not to be considered as threatening or abusive words, that will be a licence to all and sundry, from the drunkard to the violent extremist of any faith, to use it as a code word without being convicted of a homophobic crime..

Leviticus 20:13 was never quoted in its entirety. But even if had been, it ought not to constitute a public order offence.

And before any readers or communicants speculate on the ethnic influence or possible religious motivations of Judge Shamim Ahmed Qureshi, it is worth noting that he found Mr Overd not guilty of any offence by calling Mohammed a paedophile.