The first Christian woman to face trial for street preaching since a landmark free speech case in 1997 has been told there was ‘no case to answer’ by a district judge.
Hazel Lewis, 49, was arrested while preaching a biblical message outside Finsbury Park tube station in North London on 12 February 2020, after false accusations were made against her by members of the public.
The case is believed to be the first time a Christian woman has faced trial for street preaching since 1997. In that case Judge Sedley famously ruled in the preacher’s favour and said that:
‘Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence.’
However, in this incident, Miss Lewis was arrested under Section 4 of the Public Order Act for making homophobic and racist comments, despite evidence that these allegations were false.
During her arrest, baffled members of the public can be heard telling the police that Miss Lewis had not done anything wrong and asked: “What law has she broken?”
Miss Lewis, a cancer survivor who has been open air preaching for 12 years, has spoken of the range of dangers female preachers face on London’s streets. She says that she has had urine thrown at her and is frequently threatened and verbally abused.
‘What law has she broken?’
Handcuffed and put in a police van, Miss Lewis, was taken to Charing Cross Police Station where she was held in custody and released in the middle of the night.
Fortunately, Miss Lewis had been recording audio of her preaching, which was discovered at the custody check-in. She knew that the evidence would prove the accusers’ claims to be untrue.
Miss Lewis was so sure of her innocence that she initially refused legal representation.
It had been alleged that Miss Lewis had made a child cry and had been threatening when she said in response to one man’s provocation: ‘you are an advocate of Satan and I rebuke you in Jesus’ name.’
She also said that her detractors should be more concerned about recent cases of knife crime in the neighbourhood than her peaceful biblical message.
Yet three members of the public twisted her words, telling the police that she was calling for sinners to be stabbed.
Although this was proven false during the course of the investigation by the audio recording, officers changed the charges against her to a breach of Section 5 of the Public Order Act, accusing her of causing harassment, alarm and distress.
Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, Miss Lewis faced a full trial at Highbury Corner Magistrates Court on 28 July 2021.
During the trial, a witness statement from a police officer who had reviewed Miss Lewis’ recording stated that a member of the public appeared to have been ‘goading’ her to comment on homosexuality but she “refused to take the bait”. He added that “at no point do you hear her make any homophobic or racist remarks against anyone.”
The officer also stated that: “She at no point during the recording is calling for the stabbing or murder of any group based on their lack of religious beliefs.“
The statement concludes that: “Hazel repeatedly refers to people as sinners, and that the sin is caused by people having let the devil into them, and that they need to accept Jesus and God into their souls to redeem themselves from sin.”
‘No case to answer’
Handing down judgment in court, District Judge Julia Newton, said: “The defendant is alleged to have said, ‘you are an advocate of Satan and I rebuke you in Jesus’ name’. I don’t find those words threatening. These words were certainly disagreed with. I do not find that they were abusive either.
“Further, in relation to distress. It is clear that [a witness] was disturbed and found them to be unpleasant. She said that other people were distressed. She said that she was distressed and found these words were unpleasant. However, that does not amount to harassment, alarm or distress.
“In addition, there is no evidence as to why the children were crying. Whilst there was a lot of noise, there were a lot of things that could have led the children to cry.
“I find that there is no case to answer.”
Responding to the outcome, Miss Lewis, who now intends to launch legal action against the police, said: “It has taken nearly 18 months, but I am delighted that the judge has seen through the lies and has vindicated me.
“When the police arrived, despite me telling them that the allegations were false, they still arrested me without any evidence other than from members of the public who wanted to silence me and twist what I was saying.
“In custody, I told the arresting officer that I had forgiven him. I was not shocked, however, that despite the evidence on my phone that they still charged me. Street preachers are currently easy targets for the police and too many of us are unlawfully being fined, arrested and prosecuted instead of receiving the equal protection and support all law-abiding citizens are entitled to and should be confident in expecting.
“I am concerned what would have happened to me if I did not have the audio recording. It seemed that they were determined to prosecute me no matter what.
“All I was doing was preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I was arrested for it. There are dangers out on the streets – I have had urine thrown at me and have been threatened, but Christians are called to preach the gospel of salvation and hope in any situation, no matter how tough, so I am not afraid.
“Despite this experience, I am determined to keep preaching. Since the pandemic began, I have seen more and more Christians taking to the streets of London to preach.”
Andrea Williams chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “The audio footage reveals a passionate and courageous Christian woman declaring the hope of the gospel.
“Since the turn of the century we have seen a concerning escalation in street preacher arrests despite strong legal precedents being set in defence of their freedoms.
“It is chilling that one false accusation to the police can see a woman preaching on her own handcuffed, arrested and prosecuted.
“The police were determined to charge her no matter what the evidence, and we are relieved that the courts have seen through it.
“The case raises questions as to why, 25 years on from Alison Redmond-Bate, street preachers are still being arrested and prosecuted by police for lawfully exercising their Christian freedoms.”
Find out more about Hazel Lewis