A Christian street preacher has won his appeal against a public order conviction for quoting an anti-gay Bible passage.
Earlier this year Michael Overd was fined £200 and ordered to pay £1200 in costs and compensation for causing "emotional pain".
The former paratrooper who regularly preaches on the street in Taunton, Somerset, had cited part of a passage from Leviticus 20 which condemns same-sex relationships. He did not quote the words from that text that call for homosexuals to be put to death.
A gay man objected to the preaching and Overd was convicted for breaching Section Five of the Public Order Act regarding threatening words or behaviour. District Judge Shamim Ahmed Qureshi said he could have used Leviticus 18 which describes homosexuality as an "abomination" but does not mention capital punishment.
Sitting at Taunton Crown Court, Circuit Judge David Ticehurst today upheld Michael Overd's appeal against his conviction on a public order offence.
Overd said: "I give thanks to God for today's vindication. I have known God's peace and presence throughout this difficult time.
"Today the Court was faced with the farcical situation of a witness telling the judge that he couldn't even remember what I had said, but simply asserting that it was 'homophobic' – as though the mere assertion that something is 'homophobic' is enough to curtail free speech.
"In this country, we are now in the ludicrous situation where the slightest accusation of a 'phobia', be it 'homophobia' or 'Islamaphobia', is enough to paralyse rational action by the police and authorities. The highly politicised dogma of 'phobias' now too often results in trumped up charges and legal action. There is a chilling effect.
"Reasonable, law-abiding people now feel that they can't say certain things and that is dangerous. Totalitarian regimes develop when ordinary people feel that there are certain things that can't be said.
"Rather than prizing freedom of expression and protecting it, the police and the prosecutors risk undermining it, because they've become paranoid about anyone who might possibly feel offended.
"My motivation in all my preaching is to share God's message of love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ. To do that I have to talk about the reality of life, including our sinfulness."
Overd was supported by the Christian Legal Centre and was represented in court by solicitor Michael Phillips.
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: "This is the right decision, but it should never have come to this. Mike Overd is motivated by love and simply wants to share the good news of Jesus Christ.
"Public debate is becoming more superficial and fragile. People feel that certain things can't be said. That is dangerous. It prevents us from challenging ideas, beliefs and behaviour that need to be challenged. It may make some people feel more comfortable, but it doesn't make the country safer.
"Mike's case highlights problems that will only get worse if the government ploughs on with its flawed "Counter-Extremism Strategy". Islamic terrorism needs to be tackled, but giving the government far-reaching powers to clamp down on all sorts of beliefs that it doesn't like is dangerous."
It was feared that whole sections of the Bible and the Koran could have risked being banned if Overd's conviction hd been upheld.
Benjamin Jones of the National Secular Society said Overd was like a canary, testing the parameters of freedom. He said: "If Judge Qureshi finds Mr Overd's comments, in which he was quoting from the Bible, to be criminal, then presumably a very great volume of the 'moral' teachings in the Koran and the Old Testament, for example, will likewise contain criminal content. Are we to ban religious scripture which goes much further than Mr. Overd did, and which actually calls for the capital punishment of homosexuals? If Overd is found guilty, what possible reason is there for not also banning the scripture which he articulates? This is a preposterous situation. Regardless of their content, do we really want to live in a society where books are banned?"
Overd said: "I have been ordered to pay compensation for causing 'emotional pain' to someone who approached me aggressively demanding to debate the issue. There was no harm, injury or theft, just a disagreement over theology for which I have now been fined. My motivation for preaching the gospel is my love for Jesus Christ and my deep concern for people who do not know His great love and are heading towards an eternity separated from God."