Dale McAlpine was charged with causing “harassment, alarm or distress” after a homosexual police community support officer (PCSO) overheard him reciting a number of “sins” referred to in the Bible, including blasphemy, drunkenness and same sex relationships.
The 42-year-old Baptist, who has preached Christianity in Wokington, Cumbria for years, said he did not mention homosexuality while delivering a sermon from the top of a stepladder, but admitted telling a passing shopper that he believed it went against the word of God.
Police officers are alleging that he made the remark in a voice loud enough to be overheard by others and have charged him with using abusive or insulting language, contrary to the Public Order Act.
Christian campaigners have expressed alarm that the Public Order Act, introduced in 1986 to tackle violent rioters and football hooligans, is being used to curb religious free speech.
Mr McAlpine was handing out leaflets explaining the Ten Commandments or offering a “ticket to heaven” with a church colleague on April 20, when a woman came up and engaged him in a debate about his faith.
During the exchange, he says he quietly listed homosexuality among a number of sins referred to in 1 Corinthians, including blasphemy, fornication, adultery and drunkenness.
After the woman walked away, she was approached by a PCSO who spoke with her briefly and then walked over to Mr McAlpine and told him a complaint had been made, and that he could be arrested for using racist or homophobic language.
The street preacher said he told the PCSO: “I am not homophobic but sometimes I do say that the Bible says homosexuality is a crime against the Creator”.
He claims that the PCSO then said he was homosexual and identified himself as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender liaison officer for Cumbria police. Mr McAlpine replied: “It’s still a sin.”
The preacher then began a 20 minute sermon, in which he says he mentioned drunkenness and adultery, but not homosexuality. Three regular uniformed police officers arrived during the address, arrested Mr McAlpine and put him in the back of a police van.
He was later interviewed, charged under Sections 5 (1) and (6) of the Public Order Act and released on bail on the condition that he did not preach in public.
Mr McAlpine pleaded not guilty at a preliminary hearing on Friday at Wokingham magistrates court and is now awaiting a trial date.
The Public Order Act, which outlaws the unreasonable use of abusive language likely to cause distress, has been used to arrest religious people in a number of similar cases.
Solicitor-advocate for The Christian Institute, Sam Webster, says it is not a crime to express the belief that homosexual conduct is a sin.
“A Christian who stands in a public place and expresses his religious beliefs in the hope of persuading passers-by of his views – that is freedom of speech.
“Yes, the police have a duty to maintain public order but they also have a duty to defend the lawful free speech of citizens. It’s not for police to decide whether Mr Mcalpine’s views are right or wrong.
“Case law has ruled that the orthodox Christian belief that homosexual conduct is sinful is a belief worthy of respect in a democratic society.”
In November last year, the Government was defeated in Parliament over its attempt to repeal a free speech safeguard to a law against ‘sexual orientation hatred’.
The safeguard, introduced by former Home Secretary Lord Waddington, makes clear that criticising homosexual conduct, or encouraging someone to refrain from such conduct, is not in itself a crime.
The Labour party has vowed to remove the free speech protection if it wins the next general election.
In 2008 the Lib Dems forced a Commons vote in a failed attempt to repeal the Waddington safeguard, but allowed a free vote in the Lords in 2009.
The Tories allowed a free vote. David Cameron and the shadow cabinet supported the free speech protection and in the most recent Commons vote no Tory MP voted to repeal it.
Neil Addison, a barrister and expert on religious law, said: ‘People should be able to express their opinions freely as long as their conduct is reasonable. In fact, it is part of the duty of the police to protect free speech.’
Mike Judge, a spokesman for the Christian Institute, which is supporting Mr Mcalpine, said: ‘Dale is an ordinary, everyday Christian with traditional views about sexual ethics.
‘Some people will agree with him, others will disagree. But it’s not for the police to arrest someone just because others may disagree with what is said.’
According to Mr Mcalpine, Mr Adams said there had been complaints and warned him that if he made racist or homophobic remarks he could be arrested. Mr Mcalpine said: ‘I told him I was not homophobic but sometimes I did say that the Bible says homosexuality is a crime against the Creator, but it was not against the law to say this.
‘The PCSO then told me he was gay and he was the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender liaison officer for the police. ‘I said, “It is still a sin”, and our conversation ended. It wasn’t a loud or aggressive conversation.’
Mr Adams has been a member of Cumbria police’s LGBT staff association and last year represented the force at the Gay Pride festival in Manchester, marching in the parade with a police dog named Whistle.
On the social networking site MySpace, he describes his orientation as gay and his religion as atheist.
Mr Mcalpine was told that the two PCSOs had alleged that they heard him shouting that homosexuality was a sin, which had distressed them and members of the public.
He was eventually charged under Sections 5 (1) and (6) of the Public Order Act 1986 and released on bail on the condition that he did not preach in public.
At a preliminary hearing on Friday in Workington magistrates’ court, Mr Mcalpine pleaded not guilty and he is now awaiting a trial date. The two PCSOs are expected to attend as witnesses.
Shoppers in Workington were bemused by what had happened to Mr Mcalpine.
Rob Logan, the assistant manager of the O2 mobile phone store near where Mr Mcalpine preached, said he had no complaints.
‘He hands out leaflets, he says his piece and then he leaves,’ said Mr Logan. ‘He is not aggressive or threatening. He is gentle.’
The Rev Arthur Bentley-Taylor, 68, vicar of the Emmanuel evangelical church where Mr Mcalpine worships, said:
‘As far as I am concerned, this is about free speech. If we arrested everybody who said something we found offensive, everyone would be in prison.’
The Public Order Act 1986 has been used by the police in a number of similar cases, including that of Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang, the Christian hoteliers cleared earlier this year of insulting a Muslim guest at their Liverpool hotel.
In 2002 pensioner Harry Hammond was convicted under Section 5 of the Public Order Act. When preaching in Bournemouth, Mr Hammond held up a sign saying: ‘Stop Immorality’, ‘Stop Homosexuality’, ‘Stop Lesbianism’, ‘Jesus is Lord’.
In 2006, police arrested and charged Christian campaigner Stephen Green for handing out leaflets at a Gay Pride festival in Cardiff. The case was dropped.