A victory in the House of Lords and a welcome change to the free speech laws should give greater liberty to those proclaiming the gospel.
The UK government has made two decisions that will help maintain the right to freedom of speech in England and Wales.
In January, crossbench peer Lord Dear, a former chief constable, scored a victory for common sense after the government accepted the basis of his amendment to a bill that would otherwise have toughened up anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs).
Faced by this defeat, Home Office ministers dropped their attempt to replace ASBOs with new injunctions for preventing nuisance and annoyance, in the face of the claims that the tougher measures would have criminalised any irritant behaviour in the streets, including peaceful protest, street preachers and even carol singers and church campanologists.
Peers voted by 306 to 178 to back Lord Dear’s amendment, forcing Liberal Democrat Home Office minister Norman Baker to table amendments that would restore the original ASBO test, under which harassment, alarm or distress must be caused before a court can grant an injunction.
The second piece of good news was that, following a three-year campaign by religious and secular groups, police can no longer use Section 5 of the Public Order Act to arrest people, just because others found their words to be insulting.
After a lengthy public consultation and a vote of 150 to 54 in favour, during December 2013, the government removed the word ‘insulting’, helped in part by a national outcry against spurious reasons for arrest, such as someone saying ‘woof’ to a dog or the student who called a police horse ‘gay’.
From 1 February, the police — and a person bringing a complaint — must be able to prove there was genuine harassment, alarm or distress.
Simon Calvert, spokesman for the Christian Institute, told Evangelical Times the reform of Section 5 was ‘an obvious necessity. [The reform] does nothing to diminish protection for the public, but should protect some of the people against whom complaints have been made. We have an over-sensitive, victim culture and this has put pressure on the police to take action when there was no need for it, such as when open-air preachers presented questions on ethics with which some people disagreed’.
Mr Calvert added: ‘Outlawing “annoyance” meant that anything could have got caught under that, putting unrealistic pressure on the police.
‘That said, I’ve heard first-hand from people attending police equality and diversity training who were told outrageous things about what Christians believe, which simply are not true. I think this has misrepresented Christians’.
There have been increasing instances of street preachers being arrested across England, Scotland and Wales.
In some instances, familiar names keep appearing in the headlines. In January, Scottish police arrested US preacher Tony Milano for breach of the peace and for using ‘homophobic’ language.
His colleague, Pastor Josh Williamson of the Craigie Reformed Baptist Church in Perth, said Mr Milano had only mentioned homosexuality in passing when outlining various sexual sins.
Mr Milano had also been arrested last July. In September 2013 Robbie Hughes was arrested and, in the same month, Pastor Williamson was arrested twice after speaking in Perth.
Will the changes to ASBO rules and Section 5 mean fewer arrests? Different police forces have different rules; for example, the two changes to the law in England and Wales do not affect Scotland.
Further, the police still have to work out what is, and what is not, considered to be provocation. One local police force representative did not wish to go on record, but pointed to the Public Order Act 1986, as to whether the person was deliberately using provocative language.
It is also understood that the police must deal with what they find at the scene and often preachers must seek legal and professional guidance.
Certainly, many preachers have sought out the Christian Legal Centre (CLC) for help in recent months. Andrea Williams, chief executive of the CLC, said of the spate of arrests, ‘It is indicative of the suppression of the freedom to speak and live out the words of Jesus Christ in public and present the teachings of the Bible’.
But the official view of the police is that they must strike a balance. National policing lead on anti-social behaviour, Deputy Chief Constable Simon Edens, told ET, ‘The police service safeguards the right of individuals to express themselves freely and peacefully.
‘However, this has to be balanced against the rights of others to live their lives free from fear, intimidation or harassment’.
And some street preachers err towards harassment. One street preacher, on asking the writer of this article if I was a Christian, was unhappy that I said ‘yes’. He said I was going to hell.
I mentioned grace; he called it ‘nonsense’. When I quoted from Romans, he said I was lying. When I quoted John 3:16, he told me Jesus had never said that and, when I asked if he even had a Bible, he said, ‘I don’t need one’.
While not all preachers therefore use their freedom of speech in the right way, yet such freedoms are crucial. Like the police, society needs to strike a balance.
Mr Calvert said, ‘Not everything Christians say and do is right. So, if someone blatantly does something that is causing harassment, then they need to be subject to the same laws as everyone else.
‘It is incumbent on pastors to teach people how to live faithfully as Christians in a hostile culture. That said, the cases we deal with are those where perfectly reasonable preachers have been saying reasonable, biblical things.
‘And, if we are faithful to Christ’s laws, we will face some opposition. In 21st century Britain, we need to recognise where those conflict points are and how to speak wisely and sensitively about these issues’.
It is incumbent too upon UK police to apply the law in an accurate and fair way in relation to street preaching. There is evidence of considerable room for improvement in how they go about this.