Thou shalt not criticise homosexuals

What kind of country arrests religious preachers in the streets and drags them to court? Britain, actually.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Topics Politics

A born-again Baptist who travels from America to preach the word of God on the streets of Britain is bound to be a bit… shall we say ‘eccentric’? It should come as no surprise that such a person would be intolerant of homosexuality, which is regarded as a sin amongst Baptists. But should religious people who hold such views be punished for expressing them in public? That is what the arrest and fining of the American Christian, Shawn Holes, in Glasgow earlier this month suggests.

Holes, a 47-year-old from New York state, was on a Bible-bashing tour with some fellow Christians, preaching to passers-by on a busy shopping street in Glasgow, when cops arrested him and kept him in a cell overnight. He was subsequently fined a hefty £1,000 for breaching the peace by ‘uttering homophobic remarks’ that were ‘aggravated by religious prejudice’.

The case has received very little media attention. Yet according to reports in Scotland on Sunday and the Daily Mail, Holes discussed general Christian issues before stopping to field questions. When asked about his views on gay people, he responded that they deserve the ‘wrath of God’ and are bound for hell.

A couple of listeners alerted the police, but others apparently thought that a better strategy would be to challenge and heckle Holes. He was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying that: ‘There were homosexuals listening – around six or eight – who were kissing each other and cuddling, and asking: “What do you think of this?”’ However, after two sensitive souls complained, the police took it upon themselves to protect Glaswegians from Holes’ bigotry.

Once upon a time Scottish authorities burnt witches and persecuted those who took God’s name in vain. Today, criticising gays has, as Wendy Kaminer recently pointed out on spiked, been turned into a secular form of blasphemy. Those who ‘utter homophobic remarks’ must be punished, so the thinking goes, for being intolerant and hurtful.

As gay human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said in a sensible statement, Holes’ treatment represents ‘an attack on free speech and a heavy-handed, excessive response to homophobia’. Tatchell rightly pointed out that prosecuting Holes goes against the values of an open and democratic society, where anyone should be free to spout whatever nonsense they like and we should all be allowed to agree with, challenge or protest against their views. (If only Tatchell would take a similarly sensible position on the right of anti-gay Jamaican dance hall singers to perform in Britain, instead of campaigning for their deportation by the police.) While public institutions, like hospitals or schools, should be prevented from discriminating against gay people, it should not be illegal to disapprove of homosexuality and to express such disapproval.

The fact that, in Holes’ case, the police and courts acted against a politically incorrect – and wrong – statement, one which a majority of people would take issue with, can perhaps explain the lack of outrage over his arrest. But just imagine if protesters advocating gay rights, denouncing George W Bush and Tony Blair as baby killers, or opposing unequal pay for men and women were arrested for offending Christians, supporters of the war in Iraq or male CEOs. There would, of course, be uproar, because it is taken for granted that the public should tolerate listening to these views, which are today mainstream and generally agreed to be acceptable.

But what gets defined as ‘acceptable views’ changes over time. And if one supports the clampdown on views that one finds unpalatable, then that is also to accept that one’s own views might reasonably be deemed beyond the pale by someone else at some other point in time. Unless we have free speech for everyone, we do not have free speech.

Perhaps that should be a lesson to the Roman Catholic Church, which has backed tougher ‘hate crime’ penalties in the past but has said it was wrong for Holes to be charged for expressing a religious belief. The Church’s spokesman, Peter Kearney, agreed that Holes used strong language, ‘but’, he said, ‘it is obviously a religious conviction and not a form of discrimination’.

That is the crux of laws which penalise expression of views and convictions: you never know when they can be turned against you. That is why we should all oppose these efforts to wipe out intolerable views in the name of promoting tolerance.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Wendy Kaminer asked if criticising gays is now a secular form of blasphemy. Nathalie Rothschild argued that a Baptist pastor who pickets AIDS victims’ funerals should not be banned from the UK. Brendan O’Neill called for us to reclaim Voltaire and his defence of freedom of speech. He also looked at the case of Dutch bigot Geert Wilders. Dolan Cummings argued that free speech is more than a slogan. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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