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Christian preacher appeals conviction for using 'wrong' Bible verse

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Update: Mike Overd has won the appeal detailed below, to read our write up click here.

In a case highlighting the dangers of the government's 'extremism' strategy, a Christian street preacher will tomorrow appeal a public order conviction for using the 'wrong' Bible verse in public.

Michael Overd was convicted of a public order offence in March, following a conversation with a man self-identifying as homosexual, who objected to Mr Overd's preaching.

District Judge Shamim Ahmed Qureshi said that Mr Overd should not have referred to the Bible verse that he did, when he explained the Bible's teaching on homosexual practice.

Mr Overd says that the judge's ruling amounts to "public censorship of the Bible":

He continues: "It is extraordinary that the judge is deciding which Bible verses can and can't be used in public. This is the Bible that was put into the Queen's hands at her coronation and that has given birth to so many of the freedoms that we enjoy today. Since when did it become a judge's role to redact the Bible because he thinks that the public can't cope with what it says?

"It is frightening to see the judiciary crossing the line and becoming self-appointed arbiters of Christian teaching."

Mr Overd, who regularly preaches on the streets of Taunton, is supported by the Christian Legal Centre and will be represented at Taunton Crown Court by Michael Phillips.

'Seized upon by extremists'

In his ruling, the judge said that a decision to acquit Mr Overd would be "seized upon by fundamentalists and extremists to be the first step to public disorder."

Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, says that the judge's reference to 'extremism' should be a warning to the government:

"Mr Overd is a canary in the coal mine, warning us of the dangers of the government's 'extremism' strategy. His case highlights problems that will only get worse if the government ploughs on with its flawed approach to tackling Islamic terrorism.

"The government is seeking far-reaching powers, with few protections. The definitions and parameters are so vague that, on a whim, the government could turn on almost any viewpoint that it doesn't like.

"The strategy effectively places the government in the role of regulator and censor of Christianity, able to determine what can and can't be believed, taught and practised. Whether intentional or not, it is a major assault on Christian freedoms in this country.

"The approach is deeply flawed. It will punish the innocent - as we see in Mike's Overd's case - and fail to tackle the real problem of Islamic terrorism.

"Public debate is becoming more superficial and fragile. That doesn't make us safer. That puts us at risk, because it inhibits our ability to critique ideologies."

In July, Lord Evans, former head of MI5, warned:

“The forthcoming Counter-Extremism Bill aims to crack down on extremism but definitions will be crucial, and implementation of the new powers will be fraught with risk.

"One can imagine already the powers being used against harmless evangelical street preachers or the like, out of misplaced zeal and a desire to demonstrate that they are not directed against one religion alone.”

'Emotional harm'

Upon his conviction, Mr Overd was fined £200 and ordered to pay £1200 in costs and compensation for causing 'emotional pain'.

Highlighting the "chilling effect" of the concept of "emotional harm", Andrea Williams said:

"Emotional harm is a slippery and dangerous concept. It becomes a weapon for those who want to censor speech. It's frightening to see it deployed not just here but in the government's latest 'counter-extremism' proposal, which could see Sunday schools regulated."

Mr Overd noted:

"I have been ordered to pay compensation for causing 'emotional pain' to someone who approached me aggressively demanding to debate the issue. There was no harm, injury or theft, just a disagreement over theology for which I have now been fined.

“My motivation for preaching the gospel is my love for Jesus Christ and my deep concern for people who do not know His great love and are heading towards an eternity separated from God."

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