Council threatens to fine street preachers up to £20,000 after LGBT ‘hate speech’ complaints
A Loughbrickland man says he is prepared to be prosecuted in court after Mid and East Antrim Borough Council threatened to fine him up to £20,000 if he uses a public address system to conduct open air preaching in Larne.
Video footage shows a PSNI officer citing “hate speech” before arresting 44-year-old Ryan Williamson in Larne in August, which he believes was because of his stance against homosexuality. He was released 30 minutes later pending a report to prosecutors.
Mr Williamson and his two colleagues Robert Ervine, 34, also from Loughbrickland, and Sean Paul Tully, 43, from west Belfast regularly engage in open air preaching around NI and the republic but say they have increasingly come under pressure from the PSNI and Gardai to tone down their comments on homosexuality, following rising complaints. Now Mid and East Antrim Borough Council have served “abatement” notices on the trio, seen by the News Letter, warning them not to use public address systems in Larne or face a fine, citing figures of up to £20,000.
In a letter dated 12 November 2021, An Environmental Health Officer wrote to Mr Williamson, under the heading, “Abatement of existing noise nuisance and prohibition of its recurrence”.
The letter said “noise amounting to a nuisance exists at and is likely to recur at Broadway and Mainstreet” of the town, which is “arising from music, singing and raised voices amplified through loudspeaker”.
As “the responsible person” for the nuisance, the letters says, the council “do hereby prohibit the recurrence of the said nuisance” and warns that “If you contravene or fail to comply you will be liable to a fine not exceeding level five (£5000)”.
It also warns that a person who commits an offense on an industrial trade or commercial premises will be liable to be fined up to £20,000, though it does not explain how this might apply to the trio concerned.
However despite the warning, Mr Williamson says he was back preaching in Larne a few weeks before Christmas.
“We spoke to the police that day and there was no problem,” he said. “Somebody had rung them to say that we were preaching hate so they came down to see what was going on. They were very even handed on that occasion and after seeing what we were doing said they were going back to speak to the person who logged the complaint.”
Speaking of the council abatement notice, he said: “I think it is just all part of a greater effort to silence the gospel.”
He said council officials have visited to see him preaching on three or four occasions in Larne.
“One guy said we were working on council property. On another occasion an officer walked about with a clipboard but refused to speak to me. But the next thing you know I got a letter.”
He gave his personal details to the officials during one of their first encounters.
“I don’t mind going to court about it because I think what they are doing is totally wrong.”
Asked if he would pay the fine, he added: “I will take my chances in court with it.”
He also had a meeting with council officials in Banbridge, where he also preaches, just before Christmas, he said.
“They were very cordial and willing to talk. They said they would send someone out after Christmas to establish the noise levels of the preaching. So I said that was fine and that I was willing to work with them on that.”
The constant complaint against him is that he is engaging in hate speech.
“It is pretty much always the same, but maybe we would mention homosexuality more now because it is a bigger issue than it has ever been before.
“All you have to say is ‘homosexuality is a sin according to the bible’ and quote Romans chapter one and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and you get an exposive reaction, no matter where you go.”
He says the Police Ombudsman is now investigating his allegation of wrongful arrest in Larne in August. The trio were also arrested in Dundalk in September on public order charges and their case has been adjourned until June.
Fr Pat Buckley, an independent priest who has been based in Larne for 37 years, has been protesting against them in the town for some months.
“Well I am delighted that somebody is taking action against them because as a resident of Larne along with many other residents, we don’t want them here,” he said of the council warning.
“Larne has had its problems over the years with divisions and people screaming and shouting at each other in the street and we have come a long way in Larne and we want to maintain the peace we have. Plus we object to their message to gay people.”
He added: “I think we should have freedom of speech and indeed freedom of protest. But also I think we need not to be condemning and discriminating on people because of sexual orientation.
He noted that although the book of Leviticus in the bible condemns homosexuality it also condemns the eating of prawns.
“I think it is very easy for untrained and not the brightest of people to use scripture for their own purpose and I regard them really as quite ignorant of scriptural understanding,” he added.
The News Letter previously contacted a wide range of organisations but could not find anybody to defend the arrest of Mr Williamson in Larne.
Without commenting on the specific case, the Alliance Party, NI Humanists and Amnesty International all agreed that free speech must be protected, but must not stray into hate speech. The Rainbow Project was also invited to comment.
DUP MP for the area Sammy Wilson and LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell both criticised the PSNI arrest of Mr Williamson. However the Green Party called for new bye-laws to regulate the trio preaching outside Belfast City Hall, due to concerns about “unduly loud speakers” and “targeting minorities”.
The trio are also facing public order charges for preaching after being arrested in Dundalk in September, the case having been adjourned until June.
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