Evangelical Protestant preacher Pastor James McConnell, has been found not guilty of making grossly offensive remarks during a sermon in which he described Islam as “heathen” and “satanic”.
The born-again Christian from Shore Road, Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, walked free from Belfast Magistrates’ Court where he had faced a prosecution under the 2003 Communications Act.
Delivering his verdict, District Judge Liam McNally said: “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.
“Accordingly I find Pastor McConnell not guilty of both charges.”
McConnell, 78, had faced two charges - improper use of a public electronic communications network and causing a grossly offensive message to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network - after the sermon delivered from the pulpit of his Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle on May 18 2014 were streamed online.
In it he described Islam as a “doctrine spawned in hell” and that he did not trust Muslims.
The judge said while the words upon which the charges were based were offensive, they did not reach the high threshold of being “grossly offensive”.
He added: “If he had clarified this in his sermon and set out in a clear and precise way why Sharia law was repugnant to him he could have saved himself a lot of trouble.”
As the judge delivered his reserved judgment, the crowd of up to 50 Christian supporters who had packed into the public gallery of courtroom number 13 erupted into applause.
The prosecution had claimed it was a “straightforward” case because the words were delivered in a rehearsed sermon to an audience of 2,000 and watched by 700 online, and had been carefully chosen.
The comments about Islam being “heathen” and “satanic” were protected under the defendant’s rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as well as freedom of expression, the court heard.
McConnell, who spent more than an hour in the witness box giving evidence in his defence, said he had not intended to provoke, hurt or offend anyone but was unrepentant for preaching the Christian gospel.
He also claimed he had refused the lesser punishment of an informed warning because it would be an insult to Jesus and he did not want to be “gagged” in the future.
When considering the remarks about mistrusting Muslims, Judge McNally said he had taken the preacher’s good character into account.
He added: “He is a man with strong, passionate and sincerely held beliefs. In my view Pastor McConnell’s mindset was that he was preaching to the converted in the form of his own congregation and like-minded people who were listening to his service rather than preaching to the worldwide internet.
“His passion and enthusiasm for his subject caused him to, so to speak, ‘lose the run of himself’.”
The judgment was delivered in just over half an hour.
Outside court, hundreds of supporters cheered as Pastor McConnell emerged.
Some sang hymns as the preacher gave his reaction to the judgment.
“I am very happy,” he said.
He added that he give the sermon again, though he would word it differently.
“The only regret I have is the response from the Muslim community - that I was out to hurt them,” he said.
“There was no way I was out to hurt them - I wouldn’t hurt a hair on their head.
“But what I am against is their theology and what they believe in.
“If there are Muslims out there, I want to assure them I love them and, if they need help, I am there to help them, but their theology and their beliefs I am totally against them.”
He added: “I would do it again but I would word it differently because I would be conscious I was hurting innocent Muslims, I would be conscious I was hurting Muslims who have come here to work hard and are doing their best - there’s no way I would hurt those people, but I would do it again, yes.”
The pastor said he did not realise how far his sermon would travel.
“As far as I was concerned I was preaching to my own people, I was preaching in my own church - I didn’t realise it would go out there and so forth,” he said.
Pastor McConnell also said he believed he had said “worse things” in other sermons that had been streamed online.