Christian Couple Faces Criminal Charges for Criticizing Islam

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.)

  • Ted Powell

    So, was the guest charged with upsetting her hosts by denying the divinity of Jesus?

  • Miko

    Fixed: “it correctly sides with the couple who happened to be Christians”

    This should be a liberty issue, not a sectarian religious issue. We should side not with one religious group or another, but with those who wish to overturn the laws creating fake crimes in the name of preserving “public order,” preventing “hate speech,” or otherwise subjecting one group of people to the arbitrary whim of another.

  • Kris

    Absolutely ridiculous. I hope the ‘victims’ are laughed all the way out of court.

  • Richard Wade

    This law should not be re-defined as something more narrowly applicable, it should be abolished completely.

    An idiotic law like this (and we have some) in the U.S. would have to be prosecuted, the defendant convicted, then the case appealed. At the State Supreme court or at the Federal Supreme Court, it would be declared unconstitutional.

    How are asinine laws disposed of in Britain?

    Has anyone challenged that bone-headed blasphemy law in Ireland yet?

  • http://atheistweb.org Chris

    It’s ironic because Christian groups where originally in favour of this legislation. Secularists campaigned against it and predicted this outcome.

    Although I hope the case is dismissed it’s great to see the Christian Institute burning cash mounting a defence for the couple!

  • ME

    I predict that the case will be thrown out, and the radical, fundie Muslims in Britain, on the Continent and in the traditionally Muslim countries will riot and burn Union Jacks.

    The radical, fundie Muslims in Britain who riot will most definitely be in violation of the two acts described above, but will defend their behavior as free expressions of their opinions.

    We know radical, fundie xians in the US would act that way, why should radical fundies in other countries be any different?

  • http://www.CoreyMondello.com Corey Mondello

    Fundies would LOVE to have this power in the USA…THAT is the scary thing !!!

  • rus

    As hotel owners can the law hold them to a higher duty? Let’s say that was the only Hotel in town, was it appropriate for them then to make such comments toward a guest?

    I know I’ve been driving cross country, needed to rest and found some pretty strange hotels — can’t begin to wonder how they’d react if they knew of my atheism.

  • Rieux

    Hemant:

    I don’t see anything that the Christians did wrong. Atheists need to support them.

    There shouldn’t be any doubt. Anyone whose (ir)religious ideas differ from the mainstream should support the Christians in this case.

    Rus:

    As hotel owners can the law hold them to a higher duty?

    Not with regard to their freedom of (and from) religion, no.

    Let’s say that was the only Hotel in town, was it appropriate for them then to make such comments toward a guest?

    “Appropriate”? Possibly not, depending on the circumstances.

    But illegal? Actionable at law? Of course not.

  • Wendy

    Scary :(

  • http://negativentropy.blogspot.com/ Jeni Gray

    I’m no lawyer, but it looks to me like the purpose of Section 5 of the Public Order Act is to protect people against violence or physical threats of violence. It shouldn’t apply to a civil religious discussion, even if one party to the discussion feels insulted. This case is absurd. I fully support the Vogelenzangs.

  • Richard Wade

    Chris,

    It’s ironic because Christian groups where originally in favour of this legislation. Secularists campaigned against it and predicted this outcome.

    This is exactly why I keep trying to get theists to see that a strong separation of church and state is in their best interests. They naively assume that their particular religion will benefit, but they’ll be among the first to regret the loss of liberties. Getting into bed with the government means they’ll get all the diseases that the government has.

    Or maybe I’m being naive in assuming that theists who want governmental favor are actually interested in religion. Perhaps they just care about power.

  • Brian Westley

    Fixed: “it correctly sides with the couple who happened to be Christians”

    This was the Daily Mail, remember. If the religions were reversed, I’m not at all sure the DM would be as supportive.

  • http://www.infinitelife-freethinker.com Benjamin Phillips

    Well. Since this is the case I would say we atheists have a good chance of filing charges against all religious persons that throw religion and the scare tactic of hell in our faces! To me, this very act is harassment and does indeed cause distress in ones life, whether atheist or not. So, I will have to remember this story and watch it’s outcome to see where we stand on this issue in the near future! Freedom of religion also amounts to freedom from religion! Respect must be mutual!

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    My instinct is that if the Daily Mail says something then the opposite is in fact true. That said I don’t see anybody here who is right. The Muslims are wrong in their bonkers beliefs and so are the Christians. As far as I’m concerned the case should be thrown out as a waste of police time. Honestly, if you involved the police in a discussion about which flavour if ice cream was the best they would laugh in your face and ice cream actually exists.

  • JoJo

    Since the very definition of ‘Muslim’ is a literal acceptance and devout adherence to the Koran, and since the Koran calls for the murder of all non Muslims wherever they may be found, it would seem that all Muslims break the law merely by professing to be Muslim…

  • Moss

    This is ‘Lawfare’ or ‘Litigation Jihad’, a form of legal harassment where the objective is to financially ruin critics of Islam with legal costs. This tactic is very successful and is being used increasingly by Muslims in the West, see links under LITIGATION JIHAD at The Religion of Peace™ Subject Index

  • http://primesequence.blogspot.com/ PrimeNumbers

    Ludicrous. The muslims should be held for malicious prosecution and themselves locked up as time wasters.

  • muggle

    And it is most frightening that the occurance of these blasphemy laws seem to be growing at an alarming rate. I wish I thought we were immune here in the US but I fear we’re not.

    How long before it’s termed harrassment when you say anything disparing about anyone’s god of choice? I’ve already had pics of Jesus my coworkers on my formal job — a State job I might add — plastered all over the place because I was openly Atheist deemed by Human Rights as just a guy in a robe because they didn’t label them with his name or the cross.

    They were traditional pics of Jebus, typical Sunday school stuff that anyone would look at and say Christ, it’s Jesus but they actually ruled that. I would have had to take them to court next and I was already getting threats. Yeah, I reported those too — to no avail. I was told I was harrassing them by reporting them.

    Oh, and let’s say I was foolhardy enough to think I, a poor single mom, at the time could have kept my daughter and I safe at the publicity for going to court and had the money (I didn’t) good freaking luck finding an attorney willing to go up against the State.

    The union was useless. Meetings with Labor Relations and the union rep present, was the union rep ganging up with them on me. His excuse? I represent you but I also represent your supervisor and I’ve known Faith (yes, her name was actually Faith) a long time.

    Don’t think they can’t railroad you here in the US. They can. Especially if you don’t have money or connections.

  • john doe

    You just wonder: If you run a hotel, you might meet
    many guests who differ from yourself; in terms of belief, dress code, taste, politics, etc. A hotelier is supposed to be a professional who is good to all paying guests. Could it be the case that the hoteliers provoked the guests by starting to make negative comments about the dress? Let us face it, hotel guests deserve the right to dress the way they like, and I can understand they got angry about some hoteliers starting to interfere with their personal life style.

  • jay

    If you run a hotel, you might meetmany guests who differ from yourself; in terms of belief, dress code, tast

    Fine. But they can leave, perhaps demand their money back or an apology.

    This went beyond a civil matter it became a criminal offense. that makes it definitely and dangerously a state issue.

    The problem is that this is not a violation of public accommodation code, it’s a direct attack on freedom to criticize religion.

  • http://www.yahoo.com Canard Gunner

    Well, the article states that the Christians were challenged about their beliefs regarding Christ as a Minor prophet or the son of God. Don’t ask a “Christian” a question when you already know how they intend to answer it, if it’s not something you want to hear. Heck, if you don’t want to watch Fox News, turn the channel. If you don’t like the management at an establishment, don’t go back. Sounds like the muslum instigated the “debate” and didn’t like what she was told. I’ll bet she was the one that always said, “I’m going to go tell mommy on you”.

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