Updated 2.49 pm
THE BELFAST EVANGELICAL preacher accused of making grossly offensive remarks about Islam during a sermon in 2014 has been found not guilty.
James McConnell was charged under the Communications Act after he described Islam as ‘satanic’ and a ‘doctrine spawned in hell’ during a sermon that was also streamed online.
During the trial, the pastor expressed regret that he did not realise that good Muslim people would be hurt, but stood over the words in his sermon.
In delivering his verdict this morning, Judge McNally decided that while McConnell’s comments were “offensive”, they “do not reach the high threshold of being grossly offensive”.
The courts need to be very careful not to criminalise speech which, however contemptible, is no more than offensive. It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances.
McConnell’s church the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle has welcomed today’s ruling, calling it “a victory for the gospel and for free speech”.
“This is such an important ruling for churches here. It is vital that pastors and ministers are able to speak out what God has led them to preach,” the church said in a statement.
It is vital that the Internet can be used by Christians to effectively spread God’s message.
Despite the ruling, the judge concluded that McConnell did “lose the run of himself” during the May 2014 sermon.
The judge said McConnell acted as if he was just “preaching to the converted” in his congregation as opposed to a potential worldwide audience on the internet.
Judge McNally said that while McConnell “is absolutely entitled to criticise the Islamic faith in a robust and trenchant manner”, he did not “set out in a clear and concise way the grounds upon which he takes issue with those beliefs”.
Supporters of McConnell are reported to have applauded him when the verdict was delivered and the result has been welcomed by some.
The UK’s National Secular Society has described the result as a “welcome reassertion of the fundamental right to freedom of expression.”
“While we and many others disagree strongly with the tone and content of the pastor’s remarks, a heartening and broad coalition of groups have stood up for his right to express his views,” added campaigns manager Stephen Evans.