A court in Belfast, Ireland, has acquitted an evangelical preacher accused of hate speech in 2014 for calling Islam “satanic.”
Dismissing the case against pastor James McConnell of Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle Church on Jan. 5, District Judge Liam McNally said courts must be “careful not to criminalize speech which, however contemptible, is no more than offensive. It is not the task of criminal law to censor offensive utterances.”
After the decision, the 78-year-old pastor who faced the possibility of six months imprisonment told UTV he had been “ready” to go to jail for his criticism of Islam.
“I did not mean to hurt them. And when I preached that in here, you’ve got to realize this place was packed, and you’re preaching this – I never thought of the Muslim community,” McConnell told UTV. “I was preaching against Islam. But if I’d thought that I had done so much hurt I’d have curbed my words.”
Pastor James McConnell of Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle Church
But he clarified that he would not change his doctrine: “I would still say Islam is evil.”
The Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland called the ruling a “victory for common sense and freedom of speech.” The Presbyterian Church in Ireland also supported the decision.
The Belfast Islamic Centre disagreed with the verdict.
“We Muslims believe in the freedom of expression. However, freedom of expression doesn’t justify offending and insulting others’ faith and beliefs that in its turn leads to unhealthy atmosphere of disunity and mistrust,” the centre said.
The controversy began on May 18, 2014, when McConnell preached a sermon from 1 Timothy 2:5 which states, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” He also spoke of Christianity as the only true faith.
In that live-streamed message, McConnell also criticized Islam.
“Islam’s ideas about God, about humanity, about salvation are vastly different from the teachings of the holy scriptures,” he said. “Islam is heathen. Islam is a doctrine spawned in Hell.”
McConnell warned that someday in Ireland “Paul’s language” from such Bible passages would not be tolerated.
Police investigated the pastor for “hate crime motivation” following complaints about the sermon. The Belfast Islamic Centre called it irresponsible and “inflammatory.” Raied Al-Wazzan, a member of the centre, contacted police and said he would hold McConnell “responsible for any racial attacks on any Muslim in Northern Ireland,” BBC reported.
Within weeks of the sermon, McConnell issued an apology for “any distress” he accidentally caused, while maintaining his stance against Islam, Gatestone Institute reported.
In June 2015, Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Services (PPS) gave McConnell the option of an “informed warning,” which would have avoided prosecution but would have remained on his criminal record for a year.
When he refused based on his belief in freedom of speech, PPS charged him with “improper use of a public electronic communications network” and “causing a grossly offensive message to be sent” by such a network, according to the Irish Independent.
But many people defended McConnell’s remarks, including Democratic Unionist Party MP Sammy Wilson.
“I think this is an important issue of freedom of speech,” Wilson said. “I believe a prosecution like this introduces a chill factor into society where people feel that if they speak out on something that they believe passionately, they could end up being dragged through the courts.”