Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang run the Bounty House Hotel in Liverpool. They’re Christian.
Back in late March, a Muslim woman was staying at their hotel.
I’m not sure what prompted it, but a discussion about religion ensued between the guest and the owners. The conversation is said to have begun after the couple was challenged about their Christian beliefs.
It is understood that among the topics debated was whether Jesus was a minor prophet, as Islam teaches, or whether he was the Son of God, as Christianity teaches.
Among the things Mr Vogelenzang, 53, is alleged to have said is that Mohammad was a warlord. His wife, 54, is said to have stated that Muslim dress is a form of bondage for women.
In no article I’ve read has this discussion been construed as a fight or argument. It sounds like harmless debate — One person’s mythology versus another’s. It’s the sort of conversation that should (and does) go on at college campuses across the country. No religious belief should be immune to criticism and Islam and Christianity certainly have much that needs to be defended.
But this harmless conversation has led to a lawsuit against the Vogelenzangs:
Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang are charged with breaching Section 5 of the Public Order Act — causing harassment, alarm or distress. If convicted, they face fines of £2,500 each and a criminal record.
Wow. Talk about absurd. If offending someone’s sacred cows could get you fined in America, just about every atheist in the U.S. would be bankrupt.PZ Myers would owe more money than AIG.
(I suppose it’s for the best that the Vogelenzangs didn’t do what the Finnish guy did and call Muhammad a pedophile…)
The couple was charged with a “religiously-aggravated public order offence” at the end of July. They are currently awaiting their trial. The verdict could have widespread ramifications on free speech in the UK.
The Daily Mail has its own opinion on this matter and it correctly sides with the Christians:
The Public Order Act of 1986, invoked here, was specifically passed to control public processions and assemblies, to punish the stirring up of racial hatred and to bring peace to football grounds.
The Crime and Disorder Act of 1998, also involved, was similarly intended to prevent racial harassment.
First, Islam is not a race, but a religion – a set of ideas with which all are free to disagree.
Secondly, the breakfast-room of a guest house, while not wholly private, is clearly not the sort of location the framers of the Public Order Act had in mind.
We don’t know all the facts because neither side wants to talk about the incident while the trial is still ongoing. Based on what’s been reported, though, I don’t see anything that the Christians did wrong. Atheists need to support them. If the Vogelenzangs are penalized for what seems to be calm criticism of religious beliefs, atheists in the United Kingdom are next and they’ll certainly face harsher punishment.
(Thanks to Jeff for the link.)