That does not prevent me from firmly feeling that religious types are entitled to their beliefs, no matter how wacky or zany we might consider them to be. If people want to worship some guy called Jesus or another one called Lucifer, read unicornology or paint their jaxy purple for Purgatory, fine by me. If that's their gig, it’s a matter for themselves so long as I don’t have to suffer it.
It is the vital societal need for the intellectual oxygen photosynthesised from different ideas that constitutes the prosecution of Pastor James McConnell by the PSNI and the PPS as a censorious abomination. What the pastor is actually guilty of, and no more, is being in possession of a kooky opinion about another kooky set of opinions.
The pastor told Suzanne Breen of the Belfast Telegraph that he would rather go to prison than allow the state to censor his religious opinion. For that, and not for the ideas he holds, he wins my unalloyed admiration.
Speculating on the possibility of being jailed Pastor McConnell said:
I am 78 years of age and in ill health but jail knows no fear for me ... I am facing up to six months in jail and a hefty fine for saying what I believe. I have had four heart bypasses, a liver operation and I have cancer and diabetes ... All I need to get by in prison is my tablets, my reading glasses and books from the library. If I am sent to jail, I will use my time there reading and writing. My wife is 79 years old and in ill health too. But she has always been my rock and we will get through this together They can lock me up with sex offenders, hoodlums and paramilitaries and I will do my time.
Now if the freedom of expression school can’t take inspiration from the spirited defiance mounted by this 78 year old pastor, there is little that will motivate it. If it fails to stand up for Pastor McConnell its principled opposition to censorship is of no more value than moonshine. Regardless of the opinions held by the pastor there is only one position for the free speech community to take on this issue. It is the unequivocal one of Back Pastor James.
He might never avail of it but if he does go to prison Pastor McConnell can have the use of this blog to write daily about his experiences and to repeat ad infinitum the things he said in his sermon and for which he is being prosecuted. His civil disobedience on this matter is to be emulated not evaded.
Neither the seriously vindictive PSNI nor the morally serpentine Public Prosecution Service, despite having mountains of evidence about collusion, torture, police homicide, military massacres and state terrorism, have yet brought anybody responsible to court. The evidence in these cases has been available in some instances for more than forty years. The PSNI cannot seriously expect anybody, other than Barra McGrory perhaps, to entertain the kooky belief that there is less evidence against Freddie Scappaticci than there is in the case of Pastor McConnell.
McConnell’s so called offence is a year old. His legitimate expression of a religious opinion is microscopic set alongside the legacy crimes of the police, their army cohorts, prison staff, judges, prosecutors and state agents. Yet they charge himself alone.
The justice-bereft PPS is punishing Pastor McConnell because he refused to wear the muzzle it sought to clamp around his jaws when he declined its offer of a caution and by extension guilt. The pastor rightly stood his ground and is now being hauled in front of the court by a PPS smarting at meeting somebody with a spine it lacks.
We can just imagine the sonorously delivered intonation from some spokeswoman at the PPS:
I can confirm that following consideration of a complaint in relation to an internet broadcast of a sermon in May 2014, a decision was taken to offer an individual an informed warning for an offence contrary to the Communications Act 2003. That offence was one of sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive. The offer of an informed warning was refused by the defendant and accordingly the matter is now proceeding by way of a summary prosecution in the Magistrates Court.
So what if it was grossly offensive to claim that "Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell"? I find it bunkum, as harebrained as Islam, but I certainly do not find it offensive in the slightest. It is on a par with calling Liverpool FC "donkeys." Nor is it remotely close to being as dangerously offensive as clerics calling for gays to be guillotined or women to be stoned.
What I do find grossly offensive is the PPS decision to prosecute McConnell but not one homicidal cop or torturer. That, for some reason does not seem to bother the PPS.
The pastor’s solicitor, Joe Rice in promising to fight the case "tooth and nail" described the prosecution as:
an absolute waste of scarce public funds ... I don't agree with everything Pastor McConnell says but his prosecution represents a threat to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
This gets it without either fanfare or frills.
According to the Bel Tel Rice plans:
to turn the case into a landmark trial and call a range of political, religious and academic witnesses from across the UK to give evidence "in defence of freedom of speech and freedom of religion".
In a society where the censorious services of Paul Tweed command a higher premium than the sterling work of anti-censorship lawyers, it is heartening to find a solicitor take the state bull by the horns and expose as bull its claims to be defending society from the opinion of a 78 year old pastor.
Back Pastor James.