Violence increases against street preacher after authorities ask people to monitor his sermons
In June this year, police in a small town in Somerset advised local shop keepers and the general public to use their mobile phones to record evidence against a local Christian street preacher “if they think he is making offensive remarks,” including remarks against homosexual activity. According to the preacher, Michael Overd, the result has been not only charges being pressed against him by the Crown Prosecution Service for his preaching, but an increase of violent assaults and verbal abuse against him and his friends.
“I’d advise people that if they’re offended to record any incident on their mobile phone and send it to us,” the head of Taunton police told local media, including in a local BBC news program. Police told the Somerset County Gazette that Mr. Overd has made “offensive and derogatory” comments about homosexuals.
Mr. Overd told LifeSiteNews that the CPS is alleging that he is guilty of a “religiously aggravated” offense after he compared the Islamic prophet Mohammed with Christ. Although he is still awaiting the actual charges and court summons, he has been informed that there are no charges related to homosexuality.
He added that it is clear the complaints are “frivolous” and that when questioned, complainants were unable to repeat what they had heard.
The Gazette notes that Mr. Overd was “cleared of harassment following a trial at Taunton Deane Magistrates’ Courts in February 2012.” They conclude by adding the contact details for “anyone who feels offended by the street preacher” to call police, “or e-mail any video evidence they obtain.”
Sgt. Neil Kimmins, the head of the Taunton police, told the Somerset County Gazette, “People shouldn’t have abuse like that thrown at them. The street preacher likes to engage with individuals.” Sgt. Kimmins confirmed that “homophobia is definitely an issue” in the complaints.
“We’re conscious of the right to free speech but it’s about getting the right balance so people can come to our town,” said Sgt. Kimmins. He mentioned that Mr. Overd carried his own camera to “protect himself from abuse and gathers evidence of people being hostile towards him,” but added, “He’s being hostile towards them and they are responding.”
In a statement through his legal counsel, Mr. Overd said, “I find it extraordinary that the police are trying to make it illegal to preach the Gospel in the streets of our country, simply because the Gospel at times confronts the sinner.”
“It is also wrong for a police sergeant to incite local traders to seek out video evidence that my preaching causes offense and to go on TV and speak to the Press to encourage people to film me for evidence of potentially offensive preaching.”
Mr. Overd, who is being represented by the Christian Legal Centre (CLC), said the decision to request videos from the public was taken by a single local officer. “It’s clear that this officer is determined to stop me preaching the Gospel which is a terrible attack on freedom of speech,” he said.
CLC have said that the decision to single out Mr. Overd amounts to state harassment based not on the law but on ideological grounds.
The CLC told LifeSiteNews today that Mr. Overd, a former paratrooper, was asked by police in June to answer questions with regards to six complaints from the public about his activities as a street preacher.
In his interviews with the press, Sgt. Kimmins said, “This is about ordinary people being able to go about their daily activities without the fear of receiving abuse or harassment based on their perceived marital status or sexual bias.”
Garry Selfridge, a spokesman for the CLC pointed to the irony of the statement, however, saying that police are harassing Mr. Overd, who is also going about his perfectly lawful business. Selfridge said that the fact Sgt. Kimmins had to ask the public to make videos meant that police had no evidence whatever that Mr. Overd has acted unlawfully.
The previous six complaints were dismissed by the courts.
At the same time Mr. Overd has gathered his own video evidence to show he is acting fully within the law that does not outlaw Christian preaching. In the previous case in 2012, he provided two DVDs with video recordings of the incidents in question.
Selfridge explained to LifeSiteNews, “Under the Public Order Act, you are still entitled to preach. Obviously, what you can’t do is preach ‘hate’ which means that you can say what the bible says on certain issues, but you can’t say that all homosexual people should be put in prison or be attacked or whatever. But it doesn’t stop you from preaching biblical sexual morality.”
Selfridge continued, saying it is “almost beyond belief” that in an allegedly free and democratic society, police should be monitoring anyone for what amount to thought crimes, still less calling for the public to do so. He said it certainly resembled the kind of action taken against citizens by the authorities of Soviet states.
LifeSiteNews contacted Somerset County Police who confirmed that it is normal for police to encourage citizens to come forward with evidence of any “anti-social behaviour” and make complaints. Police spokesman Niamh Byrne said that in such cases it is usual that a complaint has already been made. She could not, however, confirm whether there was any suspicion of illegal or “anti-social” behavior in Mr. Overd’s case. Sgt. Kimmins himself did not respond to LifeSiteNews’ request for an interview.
Selfridge said that the case is not a matter of street thugs threatening bystanders and asking the public to monitor a law-abiding man is in fact heightening tensions. “In a sense,” he said, “it’s trying to provoke a reaction, one which may not be a natural reaction of people who hear this man preaching.”
“If you encourage people to look for fault they’ll find it,” he said.
Mr. Overd said that as soon as the request was made by police for the public to collect evidence against him, he noted an uptick of aggression against his preaching. He said he has been “assaulted” and “spat at.”
He said the situation is not limited to Taunton and noted that with the “current political climate” in England, his fellow Christian street preachers are finding themselves the subject of increasing assaults, particularly in larger cities like Manchester.
Mr. Overd told LifeSiteNews that he and some others have made formal complaints, one against Sgt. Kimmins for issuing the request for public input that, he says, has directly resulted in more violence on the streets, and another to police for failing to act against it.
The singling out of Christian evangelical street preachers by public authorities has not slowed with the recent reform of the Public Order Act, and has been highlighted as a matter of serious concern by Members of the European Parliament. The start of the phenomenon coinciding almost exactly to the passage of the UK’s new “Equalities” legislation, arrests of street preachers for “offending” against the dictates of the homosexual ideology have become a common feature of British news.
In most cases after the arrest has been made and often after being “interviewed” and held for several hours, police release the preacher without pressing charges.
In some cases, after taking legal advice, the preachers have been awarded substantial damages for false arrest and imprisonment. Earlier this year a Manchester man, Mr. John Craven, was awarded £13,000 in restitution from West Midlands police, who paid out a total of nearly £50,000 in damages and legal fees.
Selfridge confirmed that from a legal standpoint, apart from the twist of asking the public to monitor Mr. Overd, “It looks no different from the previous cases which have resulted in the police taking no action.”
He said that he knows Mr. Overd personally and described him as “fearless but not at all aggressive,” and someone “who will not compromise [his beliefs] for political authorities.”
The Christian Legal Centre believes Sgt. Kimmins is “listening only to one side,” and said his action is “outrageous”. “I don’t know why he hasn’t been disciplined,” he added. “It’s clearly beyond his remit as a police officer.”
To express concerns to Taunton police: [email protected]