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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Stephen Green goes too far

Editorial by Terry Sanderson

It is good and proper that the Crown Prosecution Service has decided that there is “no case to answer” over a Christian woman’s complaint that she was offended by the exhibition of a statue of a priapic Jesus at the Baltic Centre art gallery in Gateshead. The foot-high statue was part of an exhibition by Chinese artist Terence Koh.

Emily Mapfuwa – one of those strangely obsessive Christians who think the world revolves around their religious feelings – claimed that the exhibition Gone, Yet Still was “offensive to her faith” and instructed her solicitors to bring a private prosecution for “outraging public decency”. Her solicitors just happened to be the Christian Legal Centre, so this was obviously a piece of religious activism rather than the protection of an individual’s sensibilities.

Mrs Mapfuwa managed to be offended in Gateshead even though she lives in Brentwood, Essex. And even if she had accidentally strolled into the Baltic Centre, she surely could not have missed the many warning signs that had been posted discouraging those likely to be offended from entering the exhibition.

The Crown Prosecution Service, ruled: “It is necessary to construe the offence of outraging public decency in a way that is compatible with the right of freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Having considered the evidence in this case with great care, we are satisfied that there is no case to answer. We have taken into account all the circumstances, including the fact that there was no public disorder relating to the exhibition and that there was a warning at the entrance to the gallery about the nature of the work on display. The case has therefore been discontinued.”

Religious activists are now trying hard with this kind of case to establish in law that there is still some sort of protection against “blasphemy” that they can invoke when they feel their religious sensitivities have been traduced. But this clearly illustrates that religious people have no special protection from being “offended” or “insulted” and that is how it should be.

And then along comes Stephen Green, the boss of the extremist evangelical group Christian Voice to take up the cudgels. He told the Northumberland Gazette:“This decision urges Christians to create public disorder if we want a similar case to proceed in future. We are naturally reluctant to do that and it puts us in new territory. On the other hand, there were those at the Baltic Centre who wanted to take matters into their own hands and I have warned Anita Zabludowicz [the art collector who now owns the statue] that her statue “will not survive being put on public display again.”

Green continued: “If the CPS wanted to give the green light to blasphemous art their decision may paradoxically have the opposite effect. With the threat of destruction hanging over it, the Zabludowicz statue is now locked away by its wealthy owners and is unlikely to see the light of day again. The same will go for any other blasphemous works of so-called art. Put simply, Christians won't tolerate insults to Jesus Christ.”

These kinds of veiled threats are increasingly being used to good effect by Mr Green. On Wednesday the NSS had a distraught call from a young poet in Wales, Patrick Jones, who was to have presented a reading of his poetry at a Waterstone’s bookshop in Cardiff. But at the last minute the shop mysteriously cancelled the reading, “due to unforeseen circumstances”.

It didn’t take long to discover that the cancellation had come about because Stephen Green warned the management of Waterstone’s that there would be “disruption” if the reading went ahead. In a press release, Mr Green described the poetry as “obscene and blasphemous” and said: “Just the knowledge that we were on our way has put the fear of God into the opposition.”

Mr Green had better be careful what he says – surely he must be sailing very close to breaking the law on incitement here?

After issuing these warnings about the safety of works of art on public display, Mr Green then goes on to exhort artists to censor themselves. “I do hope that the art world will discover some respect for Christian religious beliefs and for the person of Jesus Christ,” he says.

We say to Mr Green: your zealotry is now moving from the realms of the laughable into the area of real threat. The NSS has called on the police to be more pro-active in protecting the rights of artists to display or declaim their perfectly legal works of art. If we do not stand up for free expression, then it will be taken away from us by extremists like Green.

Stop press: NSS honorary associate Lorraine Barrett, who is a member of the Welsh Assembly, has invited Patrick Jones to read his poetry in the Senedd.

Read the BBC article


14 November 2008


Published Fri, 14 Nov 2008