LGBT figures lobby for clamp down on anti-gay preaching after charges dimissed in two prosecutions

LGBT figures have called for a clamp down on street preaching against homosexuality - after a Banbridge man was acquitted of criminal charges twice in one week.

By Philip Bradfield
Sunday, 3rd July 2022, 11:21 am
Updated Monday, 4th July 2022, 9:36 am

Banbridge man Ryan Williamson, 44, was arrested in Larne and Dundalk last August and September respectively after preaching against homosexuality and was charged with public order offences. However his defence lawyers successfully defended him from all charges on 27 and 22 June respectively, citing his European Convention Human Rights of freedom of expression and association. Two associates, Sean Paul Tully and Robert Ervine, were also arrested and cleared in Dundalk. 

In the same week, the outgoing Presbyterian Moderator told that “we will not rewrite” the bible on issues such as same sex marriage and transgenderism.

The News Letter invited a number of LGBT stakeholders to respond to the developments.

NI street preachers, from left to right, Sean Paul Tully, Ryan Williamson, and Robert Ervine. All three were arrested by Garda in Dundalk in September after preaching against homosexuality. All charges against them were dismissed last month.

Aisling Playford of the Rainbow Project said it has raised concerns about open air preachers and is working towards achieving “a strong legal framework” on the issues.

“The Rainbow Project has raised concerns around the impact on LGBTQIA+ people and their families around the ongoing homophobia, biphobia and transphobia being shared by street preachers in Belfast city centre,” she said.

“The Rainbow Project are firm advocates of the right to religious freedom and to freedom of expression. The European Convention on Human Rights protects religious freedom and freedom of expression, but these are not absolute. For example, freedom of speech doesn’t give you the right to defame or harass people or engage in unlawful activity. 

“We are deeply concerned around the impact street preachers in Belfast, who seem to be exclusively focused on sexual orientation and gender, are having on LGBTQIA+ people and our wider society. Substantial concerns that have been raised by local retailers in Belfast city centre around the impact of on street preachers. Over forty impact statements had been forwarded to Belfast City Council and a number of representatives went before the Strategic Policy and Resources committee to speak about their concerns. 

“Hate Crime against LGBTQIA+ people reported to the PSNI is up 34% in the last year. This is clear evidence that LGBTQIA+ people still face harassment and discrimination daily in Northern Ireland. The Rainbow Project will continue to work towards achieving a strong legal framework which can uphold rights around freedoms of expression and religion that also ensure that hatred and prejudice against individuals due to their sexual orientation or gender identity will not be tolerated in public spaces.”

Green Party Deputy Leader, Councillor Mal O’Hara who is a member of the LGBT community, is also lobbying for changes in the law to deal with the issues.

“The City Centre should be a welcoming place for everyone,” he said. “We believe in freedom of and from religion. Belfast has had street preachers for many decades and they have rarely caused the level of nuisance these particular extremist preachers have. There are a number of concerns in relation to these extremist preachers. They attempt to dominate the public space with sound systems that drown others out. They are also repeatedly targeting members of the LGBTQ+ community and women rather than a wider proselytising of their faith. 

“Council also heard from a delegation of city centre businesses around the impact on footfall, shoppers and staff caused by these preachers. At a time when we need to reimagine the city and provide reasons for people to visit Belfast, the behaviour of these preachers is driving people away. Council has started engaging with the Department of Communities around the development of byelaws that will ensure that the city centre is a welcoming space for all. We look forward to that work progressing and ensuring that it balances rights and responsibilities of all.”

But Jeffrey Dudgeon, whose legal case at the European Court of Human Rights in 1981 saw homosexuality legalised in NI, said he did not think the authorities fully understand the ECHR in such prosecutions.

“Rights in the European Convention are often competing, which is something too many public authorities are forgetting or  foolishly ignoring,” he said. “This results in failed prosecutions and sadly brings the ECHR into disrepute.” He suggested such prosecutions should be handled by “consulting a wider range of lawyers”.

But UK LGBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell strongly defended Mr Williamson, as he has done previously.

“Much as I disagree with Mr Williamson’s abhorrent views on homosexuality, in a democratic society he has a right to express them, providing he does not threaten, abuse or harass people,” he said. “I support peaceful protests against him, not criminalisation. It is a waste of police resources that would be better directed to tackling serious crime - and an abuse of state power. I am encouraged by polls that show most Christians support LGBT+ human rights and same-sex civil marriage. Mr Williamson is out of touch with most Christians in Britain and does not represent their views.” 

The tension between the two sides of the debate is likely to be tested much further in future.

The Department of Justice is framing new hate crime legislation which critics say could break new ground by allowing police jurisdiction to investigate conversations around family dinner tables.

And the Department of Communities is framing new legislation to outlaw gay ‘conversion therapy’ which critics say could criminalise clerics offering pastoral care to parishioners on issues of sexuality and identity.

The recent Presbyterian General Assembly Expressed concern about the Secretary of State taking up new powers which allow him to progress his plans to bypass Stormont departments and impose UN recommendations on sex education and gender on all NI Schools.