Top NI atheist figure: McConnell should not be facing court

Judgment in the case against Pastor James McConnell has been reserved and will be delivered on Tuesday
Judgment in the case against Pastor James McConnell has been reserved and will be delivered on Tuesday

A leading Northern Irish atheist has defended Pastor James McConnell’s right to free speech, as judgement looms over his controversial anti-Islamic sermon.

Boyd Sleator, chairman of the organisation Atheist NI, said that although the pastor’s words lacked “sense or reasoning”, society at large should not criminalise things simply because some people find them offensive.

Pastor James McConnell preaching in 2011

Pastor James McConnell preaching in 2011

He drew a parallel between the prosecution of the evangelical Christian minister and laws which ban blasphemy, and added: “Few people at Atheist NI would admit to having a liking for anything Pastor McConnell has to say, but we do support his right to say them.”

A verdict is expected on Tuesday in the pastor’s case, in which he stands accused of sending a “grossly offensive” message across a communications network, after his address was broadcast over the internet in May 2014.

The preacher has previously stated that among those who are backing him in his court case are a Roman Catholic priest and a London-based Muslim cleric.

Pastor McConnell said during his sermon that he does not trust Muslim people, and said that their religion itself originated “in hell”.

He was offered the option of having the matter dealt with via an “informed warning” – similar to a caution – but declined this option.

Pastor McConnell was later charged under the 2003 Communications Act with improper use of a public electronic communications network, and causing a grossly offensive message to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network.

It is understood that, if guilty, the 78-year-old could face a possible sentence of up to six months in jail.

In an interview just ahead of the trial, the pastor suggested he did not believe a judge would dare to jail him.

Atheist NI chairman Mr Sleator, 36 and based in Newtownabbey, said on Sunday: “Pastor McConnell’s remarks will strike many as offensive and irresponsible, but as a society we ought to resist the urge to declare things criminal simply because they might hurt our feelings.

“That a judge is left to decide whether or not Pastor McConnell’s remarks are worthy of legal consequences may set a precedent for all manner of irreverence and criticism being deemed against the law.

“At Atheist NI we strongly oppose any creeping legislation that might have a chilling effect on free expression.”

Atheist NI was set up roughly one year ago, and Mr Sleator said it is currently in the process of applying for charitable status.

He said that while it has no formal membership, they have about 2,200 followers on Facebook, and that most of these are “people who we could consider members in the future”.

Mr Sleator had written a lead letter in the News Letter in October 2014, after organising a visit to Belfast by two prominent atheist academics – Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss.

He has also just taken up the role of heading up the activities of the British Humanist Association in the Province.

Writing on the Atheist NI website in September, Tehmina Kazi, the director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, had focused on pastor McConnell’s case, saying she was “more convinced than ever that the law should not be used as a blunt instrument to stymie freedom of expression, unless there is direct incitement to violence or hatred against individuals”.

Mr Sleator himself branded the pastor’s remarks “grossly inaccurate, silly and without much sense or reasoning”, but likened the decision to prosecute him for allegedly being “grossly offensive” to old-fashioned laws which outlaw blasphemy.

“Who is to say who is offensive, and what is not?” he asked.

He is not the first person to draw such a parallel.

According to the Christian Institute, blasphemy laws were repealed in England and Wales in 2008, but it suggested the offence may arguably still be in force in the Province (although it adds that there have been no prosecutions for it).

In 2009 the House of Lords discussed the idea of annulling the offence of blasphemy in Northern Ireland.

The idea was contained in an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill (namely, 75a) which was later withdrawn.

DUP MLA Lord Morrow said that while some wanted to remove the offence, it came “at the same time as the Government are increasingly adopting hate-speech laws which are, in a sense, a form of replacement”.