PETER TATCHELL, the controversial human Rights campaigner, was named Secularist of the Year at the weekend at a National Secular Society event in London.
He was presented with the £5,000 Irwin Prize by the author and freedom of expression campaigner Nick Cohen at a formal lunch attended by a number of prominent scientists, journalists and writers.
Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said:
We are very pleased to have been able to reward Peter’s lifelong commitment to human rights and to honour his support for a just and inclusive secular society. He has been active in many progressive campaigns over the past forty or more years, not least in gay rights, and has had to endure much public and press abuse because of it.
But he has persevered and now he has made the unprecedented transition from public enemy number one to national treasure. I’m very pleased to see that at last he has been recognised as a true secularist and someone who has given much to the cause. He’s already made the transition from ‘public enemy number one’ to ‘national treasure’.
Of course, you’d have had to live on the moon not to have been aware of Peter’s many campaigns to drive forward human rights. He is an international player and perhaps his most famous confrontation was that with Robert Mugabe, the tyrant of Zimbabwe . This resulted in him being badly beaten by Mugabe’s thug-like minders.
He has also faced physical attacks in Russia and regularly finds himself the subject of attack in the streets and on public transport. His home is a fortress, but his determination remains resolute.
The NSS first came across Peter when, in 1998, he audaciously climbed into the pulpit at Canterbury Cathedral and interrupted the Archbishop mid-flow. He wanted to call him to account for his antipathy to gay rights, something the Archbishop had consistently refused to address.
He pointed out that:
Peter was charged under an obscure piece of legislation: the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction act 1860. It uniquely protects churches from ‘riotous, violent, or indecent behaviour’ and prosecutes anyone who ‘shall molest, let, disturb, vex, or trouble’ a priest. The reverse, of course, doesn’t necessarily apply. For all those who have been molested, let, disturbed or troubled by a priest, there’s little redress – particularly given that the worst offenders are secreted away by the pope in the Vatican , beyond the reach of those troublesome international arrest warrants.
It is a law that uniquely protects churches and chapels – in other words a religious privilege – and it was at that point that we took up his cause. A conviction could have resulted in a substantial prison sentence.
The magistrate could not avoid finding Peter guilty but showed his contempt of the law under which Peter was convicted by fining him a derisory £18.60, the year the Act was passed expressed in pounds and pence.