A Northern Irish preacher has today been found not guilty of making "grossly offensive" remarks.
Pastor James McConnell faced charges last year, after he sought to expose the nature of Islam in a sermon given in Belfast. The sermon was also streamed online.
His comments were prompted by the case of Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese Christian woman who had faced the death penalty for apostasy from Islam, but was later released.
The Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland later brought charges against Pastor McConnell under the 2003 Communications Act. He was charged with 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.
Free speech on trial
Pastor McConnell faced a hearing in September and a three-day trial at Belfast Magistrates' Court last month. In a show of solidarity, hundreds of supporters sat in the public gallery throughout the trial.
After the initial hearing, Pastor McConnell had commented that he would be willing to face imprisonment: "Either they try me and put me in prison or I am free to preach the gospel."
Last night, Pastor McConnell stood by his earlier statement, telling the Belfast Telegraph: "If the judge imposes a fine, then I won't be paying it and I don't want anybody else to pay it on my behalf either.
"It's a matter of principle. Paying a fine would be an admission of guilt and I have said from the beginning that I am an innocent man. I know that not paying a fine means that people eventually end up in jail and I am prepared to accept that.”
Freedom to critique other beliefs must be maintained
But in delivering his verdict this morning, district judge Liam McNally said:
"The courts need to be very careful not to criticise 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."
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Christian Concern Chief Executive Andrea Williams commented on the decision:
"This is a great victory for freedom of speech. Pastor McConnell should never have been brought to trial for his comments, but this ruling has highlighted the problems that arise from censorship of so-called offensive views.
"This country must maintain the freedom to critique other religions and belief systems. Not all religions are the same. Different religions do not yield the same outcomes, and it is naive to act as though they do. Islamic doctrine does not provide a coherent basis for peaceful existence, and Pastor McConnell was right to recognise that."