A British city council member has told street preachers that he supports their right to speak on public streets, as long as they avoid one particular topic.
“Preachers do have a right to be out on the streets, but I do not think it right if they are talking about morality,” Pat Karney, a member of the Manchester council, said recently, according to the Christian Institute, a U.K. non-profit.
The institute, which long has worked to support the rights of street preachers, told Karney in a letter it even “has funded several legal cases where local authorities or the police have unlawfully interfered with” the rights of the preachers.
The letter was addressed to Karney with a request to clarify whether the council intended to restrict street preachers and, if so, on what legal basis.
The letter warned the treatment of street preachers by governments is a “helpful barometer of tolerance.”
Karney has said police will continue to clamp down on “noisy” preachers,” and he warned preaching that addresses sexual behavior is “not proper at all.”
“They’re perfectly entitled to talk about Jesus and the word of God, but not to make anyone feel insecure or threatened,” he said.
The institute reported Karney’s comments to the local newspaper, because it has yet to get a response to its letter.
An institute spokesman noted: “We are still no clearer about whether restrictions will be applied to street preachers in Manchester and remain concerned about potential police action. … Councilor Karney has not provided any legal grounds for this crackdown, and runs the risk of legal action being taken if the free speech rights of street preachers are interfered him.”
A few weeks ago, Karney announced a crackdown on sales people on the streets, those collecting for charities, “noisy” musicians and street preachers.
The institute said its defense of the rights of street preachers is currently revving up because of the government’s proposals for “Extremism Disruption Orders,” which essentially are bans on some types of speech.
Sir Jonathan Evans, the former chief of the nation’s MI5 intelligence agency, has warned “harmless evangelical street preachers” could be targeted by the government under that process.
“In a secular, liberal democracy like ours, waging this sort of war of ideas is extremely difficult and I have yet to come across a program, here or abroad, that is wholly convincing. More work is needed,” he said.
The same issue has arisen a number of times in the United States, where the First Amendment provides a high level of protection for street preachers. In court disputes over their activities, street preachers almost always have won against government attempts to limit or restrict speech.
The institute previously said Karney had objected to “pedlars selling tat, booksellers, preachers everywhere, chuggers and loud, noisy musicians.”
He had warned, “Over the next few weeks we will start to combat the problem, and make sure that the city becomes an even nicer place to visit.”
The Manchester Evening News reported Karney compared his city’s downtown “to a Moroccan” market.
“Manchester city center has become a circus, it’s like a Moroccan souk at the weekend, and I get so many emails and letters every day from people complaining about the current situation,” Karney said.
The city already has established a reputation for mistreating street preachers.
The institute reported that in a previous case, a Christian street preacher was wrongfully arrested and held in custody for 19 hours. He ended up with an out-of-court settlement of about $20,000.
In that case, Manchester police had accused John Craven, 57, of public order offenses. Two teens had approached him and asked what he thought of homosexuals, and he responded with a Bible verse.
Police Constable Alistair McKittrick arrested him when the two teens told the officer they felt insulted.
At the time, he said, “It appears that the actions of the police were calculated to give me and other street preachers the impression that we could not preach the gospel in public without breaking the law and if we did we would be arrested.”
Under the European Convention on Human Rights, people have the freedom to live their faith, freedom of religion and freedom of expression, which includes the freedom to impart information and ideas without interference by a public authority.
And the institute said that in 2008, another street preacher in Manchester was detained by police for over an hour after a member of the public complained when he read from a passage in Romans.
In that case, Miguel Hayworth had been reading from Romans 1:17-32, which discusses homosexuality.
A member of the public complained of “homophobic remarks,” but police released Hayworth.
The institute said in 2007 a homosexual complained to police about a leaflet inviting people to an Easter service.
Then, Julian Hurst was visited in his home by a police officer from the Race and Hate Crime Unit who said the leaflet was inoffensive.