Yesterday, the Christian Legal Centre supported street preacher Mike Overd in a High Court case where police tried to impose severe restrictions on his freedom to preach in the streets of Avon and Somerset.
Mike Overd has been preaching publicly ever since he became a Christian in the early 2000s. Compelled by love to share the gospel as widely as possible, Mike says he is very aware of the reality that faith in Jesus Christ is a matter of eternal life and death.
However, not everyone reacts positively to this message. Many in our society believe that free sexual expression and abortion are beyond reproach. Often when Mike preaches, he faces an aggressive crowd. In this circumstance, the police have typically responded by restricting Mike’s freedom to preach, often treating him as if he is causing the problem, rather than simply exercising his democratic rights.
Restricting the freedom to preach
Most recently, Avon and Somerset Police have been aggressively seeking to restrict Mike’s freedom further. Previously the police forced has tried to prosecute him five times and arrested him a further four times. However, Mike has walked away every time without being convicted. He has also been interviewed on a voluntary basis, outside of arrest, on three separate occasions, and has been issued with four Section 35 dispersal orders.
The police’s most recent attempt was to take Mike to the civil courts, applying for a civil injunction which would make it as difficult as possible for Mike to continue preaching on the streets. The application, made under the Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014, claimed that Mike “engages or threatens to engage” in anti-social behaviour, and that his preaching “threatens violence” and could cause “significant risk or harm” to others.
If granted, the injunction would have meant that Mike faced arrest, imprisonment and contempt of court if he:
- preached in a single town or parish for more than 20 minutes a day
- went within 80 yards of an abortion clinic in Taunton for any reason
- used visual aids and placards, such as signs which say ‘repent’, ‘abortion is murder’, or showed medically validated images of the reality of abortion
- used a soap box in order to preach from an elevated position
- ‘breached the peace’ through any words or actions in a public space.
Victory for Christian freedoms
Thanks to the support of the Christian Legal Centre through barrister Michael Phillips, the judge rejected all of these restrictions on Mike. Only two other restrictions were allowed, which pose no significant problem or concern to Mike: he is not allowed to use an amplifier when preacher, and he many not call abortionists ‘murderers’ – which he never did anyway.
Not every Christian will feel compelled to evangelise in public. Similarly, not every Christian will agree with the exact way that Mike preaches. However, whatever our thoughts are on Mike’s style of public preaching, this judgment represents a win for Christian freedom and freedom of speech. Free speech is not only there to protect what many would like to hear, but also to protect the expression of ideas that people don’t want to hear – including the truth about sin and judgement, even when God, through the Bible, condemns sexual sin, false religions or abortion.
In response to the continued attempts to suppress his teaching, Mike is set to bring a claim in December 2020 against the Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset Police for harassment, false imprisonment, assault, malicious prosecution ad infringement of his rights under the Human Rights Act 1998.
Injunction ‘completely unnecessary’
Responding to the ruling, Mike commented:
“It is sad that the injunction was brought against me in the first place, but I am pleased that the police having considered the evidence that we put forward and arguments raised by my lawyers, recognised that so many of the restrictions that they had initially asked for, were completely unnecessary.
“I have faced nearly constant harassment by the authorities for preaching for nearly ten years. Everything has been tried by the police to make it very difficult, if not impossible, for me to preach.
“This is the second time the police have brought an application for an injunction against me, and they are running out of options. I never called anyone a murderer, so I was happy to agree not to do this. I am happy not to use an amp, because I have a pretty loud voice and I appreciate that not everyone wants to hear the message.
“It is very concerning that the police see Christian preachers as a problem, even an enemy, when I and other preachers like me are just saying what the Bible says.”
Freedom of speech under attack
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said:
“As Christians, we love and value the work that the police do in Avon and Somerset and around the country. However, the police have been given tremendous power that must be exercised responsibly and within the law.
“What we have found at the Christian Legal Centre is that police around the country often believe that if someone is offended by a message that they don’t agree with, a crime must have been committed.
“This simply is not the case and has led to many false arrests and prosecutions. It has to be accepted that Mike’s messages can be hard-hitting, but it is not the place of the state to police his message.
“We welcome the judge’s ruling, but Mike’s case shows that unless we stand up for the preachers, there is a real risk that eventually they will come for the ‘moderate’ Christians; the pastors who preach and the everyday Christians who talk to their friends about controversial subjects.”
Pray for Christian freedoms
Find out more about Mike Overd
- giving thanks to God that street preacher freedoms have again been upheld in court
- giving thanks for Michael Phillips and the Christian Legal Centre for supporting the freedom to preach
- for Mike and every other faithful street preacher, that they would be filled with courage and wisdom and that God would bless their efforts by bringing people to faith
- that Mike and others faithfully preaching the gospel on the streets would be protected from any further attempts to silence them
- that Christians would be emboldened to share the gospel – by whatever means – with confidence and joy.