Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Dear Judge: That's Not How Justice Works

A priest who threatened two gay men with hellfire has just been cleared from two charges of using threatening words or behaviour. According to BBC News, his defense lawyer said he was "merely reciting a passage in the bible".

What astonishes me about this story is the complete and utter ignorance of the judge, accepting the defense that a threat of violence ceases to be a threat of violence because it is a threat of violence read from the bible.
Please note that the wording of the charge is "using threatening words or behaviour". In this situation, that is an unambiguous given. It does not matter at all who the priest said would supposedly supply the torture. Yet surprisingly, the judge seems to think it does. In an astounding act of ignorance, he somehow managed to entangle the substance of the threat with whether or not the one uttering it was actually guilty of uttering it, and defended the religious priviledge to discriminate at will.
Fact of the matter is that the priest threatened the two men with torture if they didn't change their lifestyle according to his views. Legally it is completely besides the point what book the defendant read from. There are many ways of saying "do as I say or suffer horribly". I might say "Do as I say or I'll kill you", or perhaps "...or my brother will kill you". I might even say "...or that zebra-unicorn over there will kill you". It doesn't matter whether or not the threat is credible, or even remotely believable. What matters is whether it has been pronounced openly or not, and in all of the above cases I would be found guilty (or, in the last case, insane). But for some reason truly beyond me, there seems to be an unwritten free-pass to threaten anybody I chose, as long as I make sure to substitute "God" as the source of violence.

The sad fact remains that the priest in question threatened two men with being burned by fire if they didn't change their lifestyle according to his views, in clear words. And however supernatural or figurative that fire might be, I find it incredible that an elected judge can ignore that without having his decision challanged in any way.

The priest, of course, is now now more than happy to play the persecuted victim. "Something is wrong", he says, "[when] police arrest me, a Christian preacher who cares deeply for Jesus Christ and the people of Taunton". (Emphasis added according to how I imagine his whiney voice.) As you might already have guessed, he didn't fail to add:
"Christians like me are being harassed."


  1. I have to say, I'm not actually with you on this one. I used to work for a bloke who was the single most callous, systematically dishonest and deliberately manipulative person I've ever met, to the extent that a genuine personality disorder may have been on the table. When I left, I told him that although *I* couldn't do anything about the shit he'd caused me, sooner or later he'd treat the wrong person the way he'd treated me and he'd pay for it (in the event that's exactly what happened. He ended up losing quite literally everything because he tried to fleece the wrong people). My point is that *I* wasn't making a threat, in fact I openly said I was powerless to punish him... all I did was predict where his behaviour would lead if he didn't change it.

    I think this priest - misguided as he obviously is in his beliefs - was simply doing the same thing. He wasn't threatening to do anything himself, he was simply telling them what he believes will happen as a result of their "behaviour". Of *course* I don't think he's right and it does depress me that people are still so backwards about such non-issues as sexuality, but I think freedom of expression is the single most crucial right we have and if I want the right to tell someone that if they continue to believe silly superstitions they'll spend their life afraid for no reason, then I must accept their right to say where they think *my* actions will lead. For me, if it's not a direct threat or an incitement to violence from other people, we have to allow it to be said.

    1. There are two issues here that we need to keep seperate: A) Is it sensible to have a law against intimidation by threats of violence?
      B) Since we have such a law, is the judge justified in making an exception for purely religious reasons?

      We may well discuss the first matter in some length. I myself am not quite sure where I stand on that. From a certain perspective, ANY threat is merely "informing somebody of certain consequences" - Saying "Do X or I'll kill you" may also be seen as merely informing the other party of the fact that I will not stop at legal boundaries to give them the punishment I think they deserve.
      In this case, though, we have the situation that there is a law against the use of threatening words, and that there are legal consequences to breaking that law. When I say "Do X or I'll kill you", or "Do X or my brother'll kill you", In both cases I'll face legal consequences. If I say "Do X or my unicorn'll kill you" I also face legal consequences, though the result may be being sent to the looney bin rather than being punished.
      In any case though, it is a screaming injustice that just because this guy said "god" rather than "unicorn", it suddenly becomes acceptable behaviour, and he not the gay couple, becomes the poor, harrassed victim of cruel injustice.

  2. I don't know what the law is like there, but in the U.S. this would NOT be considered a "threat". For a statement to legally be considered a threat, it needs to satisfy certain criteria. You can even tell someone that you are going to hurt them without it being considered a "threat" if it isn't specific enough. It is also not a threat unless a reasonable person could expect follow-through. As far as the priest was concerned, he might as well have yelled "If you keep smoking cigarettes you will die of cancer." He simply thinks it's the case - he is not going to MAKE it happen. No reasonable person thinks that a threat of hell is something that is going to be followed-up on, so it really isn't a threat.

    Now, harassment? You might have a better case there, depending on how persistent and obnoxious the guy was.