On 2nd May The Telegraph published a report in which it described the arrest of a Cumbrian preacher for telling a passer-by that homosexuality is a sin. I’d like to place it on the public record that I think the arrested man, Mr Dale McAlpine, is a fool whose version of Christianity I find both idiotic and repugnant. Why therefore am I so disturbed by this incident, and why am I not able to feel quiet satisfaction that views with which I so fundamentally disagree are being effectively suppressed by the likes of the very diligent Police Community Support Officer who reported Mr McAlpine to his real police colleagues so that they could then effect the subsequent arrest?
I can disabuse you of one explanation right now. It has nothing to do with Christian solidarity. I have recently in this very blog expressed my clear position that not only is it intolerable to expect religious exemptions from the law of the land, the refusal to grant such exemptions cannot conceivably be described as discrimination against the religious. So I am absolutely not arguing that because Mr McAlpine’s particular stupidity is blamed by him on his dubious biblical exegesis, he should be allowed to behave in a way that someone not similarly deranged would be prevented from doing. No, my concern is for the encroachment on all our civil liberties that this case exemplifies, and for the drift towards a state-determined morality that might have more appropriately graced the dystopia of Orwell or Huxley.
Mr McAlpine was charged under Sections 5 (1) and (6) of the Public Order Act which, according to the Telegraph report, “outlaws the unreasonable use of abusive language likely to cause distress”. I believe that it is sinful to use the financial system to accumulate vast amounts of wealth, and subsequently to use that wealth to place massive bets that when lost throw innocent citizens into unemployment and penury. The sin is that of greed, an old-fashioned one, and also one that successive governments have tried hard to encourage us all to indulge. We may not have needed much encouragement, but that’s neither here nor there. The vast majority of the citizenry of this country no longer perceive their own behaviour as greedy, and even if they do, do not find it especially sinful. So if I should preach in the public square that greed is sinful, that most of us are guilty of it, and that some are very much more guilty than others, and if I should go further and name individuals or categories, such as bankers, that I accuse in particular, might I not cause them distress? If I add some abusive spice, and say that in my opinion Mr Fred Goodwin is a sinful fucker and total bastard, should I be arrested under this Act? Would I be? If I were to have the misfortune to preach in this fiery and distressing way within the earshot of a PCSO who is also a member of the British Bankers’ Association, would it be right for that officer to use his partiality as an added incentive for bringing me before the beak? No, it would not. The PCSO in the McAlpine case turned out to be the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender liaison officer. Isn’t there just a tiny conflict of interest here? And, if the Telegraph report is to be believed, Mr McAlpine did not use the kind of invective that I included in my fantasy sermon a couple of sentences back. All he did was to say in public that it was his (in my judgement entirely erroneous) belief that homosexuality is a sin.
Telling someone that they are sinful is not causing them distress, especially as it is very unlikely that they believe in the concept of sin anyway. And so what if it does? How on earth can it be a crime to distress someone? If Mr McAlpine had preached that it was a damn fine idea to string up every gay person from the nearest lamppost or to set fire to their houses, preferably with them inside, that would be a different matter. Incitement to hatred, and to act on that hatred violently, is rightly a crime. Telling someone something they don’t want to hear, or which undermines their self-esteem, is not.
Let me repeat my Twitter comment on this sorry episode. Mr McAlpine is an idiot. The law which prevents him from displaying his idiocy in public is an ass. The preposterous notion that causing offence should be a crime needs demolishing forthwith. It undermines our most basic claim to live in a free society. Those who only notice this when they agree with the offence in question should be ashamed of themselves.