Peter Tatchell's Easter Sunday Trial
A moral victory.
On Easter Sunday, 12th. April 1998, Peter Tatchell and six other members of the queer rights group OutRage! interrupted the Archbishop of Canterbury's Easter sermon in Canterbury Cathedral to protest against Dr. Carey's support for anti-gay discrimination. The OutRage! activists walked into the pulpit, holding up placards. Tatchell spoke to the congregation, criticising Dr. Carey's opposition to gay and lesbian human rights.
Peter Tatchell was subsequently charged with "indecent behaviour in a church", contrary to section 2 of the 1860 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act, formerly part of the Brawling Act of 1551.
Tatchell's Plea of Mitigation to the Court
I have no criminal record. I have been prosecuted under an obscure, ancient statute, the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act of 1860.
It was formerly part of the Brawling Act of 1551 and, before that, part of an earlier medieval statute, dating from the Dark Ages, when the Church had total, absolute power.
This Act is so obscure that I can find evidence of only a handful of prosecutions in the last 138 years.
When I staged my protest in Canterbury Cathedral on Easter Sunday, I was not aware that I was committing an offence.
Prior to my being charged, I did not know of the wholesale ban on protests under the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act.
My action in the Cathedral was not a wilful act of defiance of a law I knew existed. I did not set out to break the law.
My understanding was that, in a democratic society, I had the right to freedom of speech and peaceful protest.
I was not aware that these rights cease to exist inside a church.
I respectfully request that you consider the following submission:
My protest in Canterbury Cathedral was peaceful and dignified.
It was not undertaken lightly. It was a protest of last resort.
For eight years, the Archbishop had refused to meet representatives of the lesbian and gay community to discuss our concerns.
Because Dr. Carey had rejected all requests for dialogue, I felt the only option left was to protest against his support for the denial of homosexual human rights.
There was never any intention or desire to cause offence.
I deliberately and consciously chose not to protest during the sacred parts of the service - prayers and communion.
My plan was to say a few brief sentences criticising the Archbishop's endorsement of discrimination against lesbians and gay men, and then quietly leave the Cathedral.
The protest would have been over in two minutes.
I waited until the Archbishop began his sermon.
Then I walked calmly into the pulpit and addressed the congregation -- speaking in a loud, clear voice.
There was no shouting or screaming.
I did not touch or speak to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
There was no violence, threats, menace, insults, abuse or bad language.
All that I said was that Dr. Carey believes that lesbian and gay people are not entitled to human rights.
The only violence during the protest was that of a Cathedral steward, Mr. Geoffrey Ash, who has admitted - in a statement to the police - that he punched me repeatedly. I did not retaliate, but remained passive and non-violent.
My conscience is clear.
I criticised the Archbishop of Canterbury for supporting anti-gay discrimination, and defended the human rights of homosexuals against an intolerant, uncaring Church.
My only regret is that in standing up for what is morally right I inadvertently broke an obscure, draconian and unjust law.
On Monday 30th. November, the trial of Peter Tatchell began at Canterbury Magistrates Court, under Mr. Justice Michael Kelly, a stipendiary magistrate.
Tatchell was originally arrested for "criminal damage" to a piece of wood two inches square, as he was dragged from the pulpit in Canterbury Cathedral by the arresting police officers. However, the same afternoon, the charge was amended to "violent behaviour" and later to "indecent behaviour" in a church, contrary to section 2 of the 1860 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act (ECJ Act).
Mike Mansfield QC was due to represent Tatchell in court, but he was prevented from attending by the overrun of the Hyde Park bombing appeal. Peter Tatchell was represented by Mark Guthrie (instructed by solicitor Angus Hamilton).
Robert Montagu, Principal Crown Prosecutor for Kent, opened the prosecution, referring to the Easter Sunday protest in Canterbury Cathedral as "notorious", "inappropriate", "unseemly", and "indecorous", but conceding that it had only lasted three minutes, and that there was "no suggestion of any physical violence".
Five prosecution witnesses appeared, and a statement from a sixth witness was read. Two police witnesses, (Superintendent John Grace and Special Constable Peter Pilbeam), confirmed that there was no physical contact between Tatchell and Carey, and no physical menace or threats.
A confused account by the Archbishop's verger, Mark Punton, conflicted with that of other prosecution witnesses on the action of the protesters. He quoted Dr. Carey as saying to the congregation after the protest "I am not worried. There is no need for anyone else to worry."
Geoffrey Ash, a Cathedral steward and prosecution witness, admitted assaulting Tatchell, jumping up from beneath the pulpit and hitting him on the fingers "4 or 5 times". (The police had declined to charge him with assault and the Crown Prosecution Service declined to sanction his prosecution).
Mark Guthrie opened the case for the defence, stating that the basic facts of the case were not being contested, and pointing out that the protest was not a personal attack on Dr. Carey, but on his stance, advocating advocating discrimination against lesbians, gays and bisexual people.
The court then adjourned for lunch.
After lunch, Peter Tatchell gave evidence. He explained that OutRage! was inspired by the direct action methods of the Suffragettes, Mahatma Gandhi, and the U.S. Black Civil Rights movement. The Canterbury Cathedral protest was directed at Carey's eight-year anti-gay stance. He opposed an equal age of consent and lesbian and gay fostering. (The Church of England Children's Society, of which Carey is President, is the onlymajor U.K. adoption agency to discriminate against lesbian and gay applicants).
Stating "Human rights are more important than the ceremony of the Church, Tatchell went on to compare Carey's support for anti-gay discrimination with the discriminatory policies endorsed by the pro-apartheid leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa.
Another of the OutRage! protesters, John Hunt, then gave evidence. After being questioned about events in the Cathedral, he explained that OutRage! had previously conducted protests against Christian homophobia in other cathedrals, (both C of E and RC) without any arrests: even at the retirement ceremony in July 1995 of the Bishop of St. Albans, where the cathedral was filled with senior Anglican clerics from all over the world.
Hunt maintained that a two-minute interruption of Carey's sermon was hardly comparable with Carey's interference in the lives of half a million lesbian/gay/bisexual people in the U.K. and millions more in Anglican countries overseas.
A character reference from the Rt. Rev. Richard Holloway, the Bishop of Edinburgh and Primate of Scotland, was then read to the court, after which the magistrate adjourned for the day.
Tony Benn's Character Reference. ~ ~
Regina v. Peter Gary Tatchell
Evidence submitted to the Canterbury Magistrates' Court
by Rt. Hon. Tony Benn, MP
1 December 1998
My name is Tony Benn and I am a Member of Parliament, first elected in 1950 and have been a Privy Councillor since 1964.
I have known Peter Tatchell since 1981 and have the greatest respect for him as a man of principle, consistent in his convictions, non-violent in his methods and wholly committed to the rights of homosexuals to equal treatment before the law as a matter of human nights.
This view is not universally shared but it is, at last, becoming accepted by the House of Commons in the drafting of legislation.
It is not necessary for anyone to agree with Mr. Tatchell's opinions on this matter, or even to approve of his methods of campaigning, for his own complete integrity to be recognised.
His intervention on Easter Sunday, when he entered the pulpit and briefly interrupted the sermon to be preached by the Archbishop of Canterbury because he opposes the views of the Archbishop on this issue, may have disturbed some members of the congregation, may be criticised by others who do not share his view, but cannot be held to have constituted'riotous, violent or indecent behaviour'under the law, nor can it be denied that what he did was solely motivated by his long-held personal convictions and was entirely non-violent in character.
I hope that in considering this case the Court will take account of the long history of dissent which has taken place in this country, and world-wide, over the centuries, and which is now accepted as having, on many occasions, played a significant and beneficial role in shaping public opinion, the law of the land, and the thinking of the Church itself.
When Jesus himself entered the Temple in Jerusalem and turned out the''changers' money and overthrew their tables" (St. John, Chapter 2, Verses 14-15) this non-violent direct action could well have been an offence under the then law, but is now accepted by the Church as a historic and symbolic act.
It has long been accepted that'Conscience is above the Law' and that men and women who follow their own deeply held beliefs and peacefully defy unjust laws are right to do so, and though they may be punished at the time for what they have done are often upheld by the judgement of history.
For example, Christians who defied the Heresy Act of 1401, which made it an offence, punishable by being hanged, drawn and quartered, for the laity to read the Bible, are now seen to have been right in what they did: and the law was later repealed.
Similarly the Suffragettes regularly broke the law to argue for the right of women to vote, were imprisoned and are now seen to have been martyrs in a just cause: and women now have the vote.
Conscientious objectors against war, the women at Greenham Common, imprisoned by the Newbury Magistrates, Court in 1982 under the Justices of the Peace [Act] of 1361 for action "likely to lead to a breach of the peace", and many others, have done what they believed to be right, have paid the price for it: and are accepted as having been unjustly treated.
Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, both of whom were imprisoned for committing offences that no longer exist are now honoured for their principled stand.
More recently three Anglican Bishops, a Roman Catholic Bishop and five others including the Baptist superintendent, the Moderator of the United Reformed Church and regional leaders of the Methodists, Salvation Army and Moravians attacked the Poll Tax in 1990 and issued a statement which included the phrase''Everyone has the right to protest peacefully about a perceived injustice" (Guardian, 10-April-1990).
The evolution of democracy and the slow advance of human rights can, very often, be attributed to those very people and the courage they showed.
Given this background it would, I respectfully submit, be quite wrong for Peter Tatchell to be convicted under laws drawn up in past centuries for quite different reasons, namely the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act of 1860, formerly embodied in the Brawling Act of 1551.
In addition I must add that were Mr. Tatchell to be convicted and punished it could bring both the Courts and the Church itself into disrepute, and would serve to remind the public that only the Churches enjoy protection of this kind under the law: a protection not even enjoyed by Parliament or other public gatherings.
For these reasons I hope this Court will find itself able to dismiss the charges brought against Mr. Tatchell.
I would be glad to answer any questions which the Court might like to put to me.
(Signed) Tony Benn MP.
M.P.'s Evidence and Summing up.
Tony Benn, Labour M.P., pointed out that Parliament has no protection similar to that enshrined in the ECJ Act. Indeed, the common practice with hecklers in the Public Gallery of the House of Commons is to hold them in the Clock Tower until the House rises, but there is no provision to imprison them.
Defending Tatchell's right to freedom of speech, he stated that "Democracy imposes problems for both law-makers and magistrates. Conscience is above the law. Conscience is god-made and the law is man-made."
Dr. Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat M.P., took the stand and was questioned for three minutes, stating that he had known Tatchell since his election to Parliament (in May 1997) and could vouch for his honesty, integrity and commitment to human rights.
Mr. Montagu then summed up for the prosecution, quoting several antiquated items of case law, including one in 1900 of a clergyman who was found guilty of "indecency" under the Act, for interrupting a sermon with "controversial matters".
As evidence of Tatchell's guilt, he stressed the premeditated nature of the Easter protest, the presence of co-protesters brandishing placards, the resistance that he (Tatchell)is alleged to have offered, the BBC footage where the Archbishop was seen to have been "displaced" from his position in the pulpit (he stepped aside 2 or 3 inches), only finally suggesting that Tatchell's protest constituted a "disturbance in a sacred place of divine service".
He then referred to various sections of the Human Rights Act 1998 (which received the Royal Assent only on the 9th. November 1998), admitting that he did not know which sections were currently in force.
Mr. Guthrie then began summing up the defence case, stating that since this was "probably the first prosecution in 32 years" under this Act, no-one could be expected to have knowledge of its existence.
He enlightened the court by explaining that, prior to the ECJ Act, the penalty for brawling in a church had been mere exclusion from the church on a first offence, rising to the loss of one ear for a second offence, the other ear for a third, and branding on the face for a subsequent offence.
"The protest was a simple statement of fact- facts which are not disputed by the Archbishop." He also referred to the story of Jesus and the money-changers, arguing that dissent and protest was an integral part of the Christian tradition.
Mr. Guthrie also proposed a freedom of speech defence under the newly-enacted Human Rights Act 1998, suggesting that Tatchell's brief, non-violent intervention in Canterbury Cathedral was protected by the Act's guarantee of the right to free speech and peaceful protest.
Mr. Kelly declared that Tatchell's behaviour was indecent (under the terms of the 1860 ECJ Act), and that the free speech and right to protest under sections 6,7 and 22.4 of the Human Rights Act are not currently relevant. He then declared that Tatchell was guilty as charged.
Mr. Montagu then applied for costs of £320 to be awarded against Tatchell. In mitigation, Mr. Guthrie read a letter from the Rev. Richard Kirker, secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, in support of Tatchell, and made a plea for a conditional discharge.
Passing sentence, Mr. Kelly declared that Tatchell's protest was the equivalent of a minor public order offence, for which there would be no question of prison. "You are a man of previous good character", he told Tatchell, imposing a fine of £18.60, plus £320 costs (The £18.60 fine being a whimsical reference to the 1860 Act under which Tatchell had been convicted).
Peter Tatchell's Statement Outside the Court.
I have been found guilty in a court of law: but I do not regard myself as morally guilty of any crime. My actions in Canterbury Cathedral were in defence of Human Rights.
I have been convicted of "indecent behaviour in a church" under an unjust 1860 law that violates the right to free speech and peaceful protest. It gives the church privileged protection against dissent. No other social institution, not even Parliament, has such draconian, sweeping powers to suppress protest.
What is indecent is not my defence of gay human rights in the cathedral, but Dr. Carey's support for discrimination against lesbians and gay men. It is the Archbishop who should have been on trial. He endorses the abuse of homosexual human rights. That is the real crime.
The magistrate's witty, derisory fine of £18.60 is a clear reference to the year the ECJ Act became law, and indicates that he regarded my actions as a trifling offence. In his summing up, Mr. Justice Kelly said he was bound by earlier restrictive interpretations of the law. This suggests that, were it not for the illiberal nature of the l860 Act, he may have found me not guilty.
The delightfully ironic fine of £18.60 indicates that he was questioning the relevance and use of the 1860 Act to deal with peaceful protests. He was sending a signal that prosecutions under this arcane Act will not be taken seriously by the courts.
This has been a desperate prosecution from start to finish. I was originally arrested for "criminal damage". That charge could not be sustained, so it was not pursued. Instead, I was charged with "violent behaviour". Neither could that be proved, so it was also dropped. Eventually, I was charged with "indecent behaviour", which is obviously absurd. No reasonable person would consider that what I did was indecent. The true indecency is Dr. Carey's endorsement of anti-gay discrimination.
A chronological history of OutRage!'s Easter Sunday protest, Tatchell's pre-trial hearings and his defence campaign, can be accessed in the OutRage! web site: www.OutRage.cygnet.co.uk
© Copyright Peter Tatchell 1998. All Rights Reserved.
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