Tatchell stands trial over Easter Sunday cathedral protest

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell will stand trial at Canterbury Magistrates’ Court on Monday, 30th November 1998, at 10:00 a.m..

He is being tried on a charge of “indecent behaviour in a church” contrary to Section 2 of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860, (formerly part of the Brawling Act 1551).

Tatchell’s trial will be the first court case involving the privileged legal status of the church since the Gay News blasphemy trial in 1977.

OutRage! is urging supporters to protest outside Canterbury Magistrates’ Court, Broad Street, Canterbury, (opposite the Cathedral), from 9:15 a.m. on Monday, 30th November.

Donations to the Defence Fund should be made payable to “OutRage!” and sent to:

OutRage!, P.O. Box 17816, London. SW14 8WT

The trial follows OutRage!’s peaceful two-minute Easter Sunday protest in Canterbury Cathedral, which interrupted the sermon of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey. Tatchell walked into the pulpit and addressed the congregation, criticising Dr. Carey’s support for discrimination against lesbian and gay people with regard to employment, the age of consent, fostering, and marriage.

Of the seven OutRage! protesters in the cathedral, only Tatchell was arrested and charged.

The OutRage! Easter Sunday protest interrupted Carey’s political sermon: not the sacred parts of the Easter Service, such as prayers or communion. Tatchell’s intervention was nonviolent, calm, and dignified. He did not touch or speak to the Archbishop. He uttered no insults, threats, abuse, or bad language, but merely stated the facts about Dr. Carey’s on-the-record opposition to lesbian and gay human rights.

Britain’s top civil liberties lawyer, Mike Mansfield, QC, has agreed to represent Tatchell. His solicitor, who has handled the case for the last six months, is the esteemed gay rights advocate, Angus Hamilton. Tatchell’s defence will be “the right to free speech and peaceful protest”. He will challenge the way the 1860 Act gives the church “privileged protection against protest”.

Amnesty International is monitoring the case, following calls for Tatchell to be adopted as a “prisoner of conscience” if he is jailed.

The National Secular Society has launched an Appeal “deploring the prosecution of Peter Tatchell under the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act” and calling for the 1860 Act to be repealed on the grounds that “it gives the church unique and sweeping powers to suppress dissent”.

Many leading public figures have signed the NSS Appeal, including

  • Lord Henderson of Brompton,
  • Lord Jenkins of Putney,
  • Lord Peston,
  • Lord Raglan,
  • Lord Rea,
  • Viscount Falkland,
  • Baroness Flather,
  • Bishop Derek Rawcliffe,
  • Sir Ian McKellen,
  • Sir Ludovic Kennedy,
  • Stan Newens, MEP,
  • Iain Banks,
  • Alan Bennett,
  • Edward Bond,
  • Marcelle d’Argy Smith,
  • Michael Foot,
  • Harold Pinter,
  • Claire Rayner,
  • Vanessa Redgrave,
  • Jimmy Somerville,
  • Neil Tennant,
  • and Polly Toynbee.

Tony Benn, MP will appear as a character witness. Dr. Evan Harris, MP and the Bishop of Edinburgh and Primate of Scotland, the Rev. Richard Holloway, have written character references on Tatchell’s behalf.

There have been only a handful of prosecutions for protest under the 1860 Act in the past 138 years. The Court has already intimated that it may sentence Tatchell to a term of imprisonment. The last time the 1860 Act was used against protesters was 1966. They were sentenced to two months’ jail.

The prosecution claim that any form of protest in a church –no matter how peaceful and dignified– is “indecent” under the 1860 Act.

No Cathedral clergy or staff are appearing as prosecution witnesses.

“What is at stake in this trial is the right to free speech and peaceful protest”, said David Allison of OutRage!. “The real scandal is not OutRage!’s peaceful protest in defence of human rights, but Dr. Carey’s advocacy of discrimination against lesbians and gay men.

“The 1860 Act gives the church privileged immunity from protest. No other institution has these special, draconian powers to muzzle dissent. It should not be a crime to criticise an Archbishop in his cathedral.”

More recently, Dr. Carey condemned legislation to equalise the age of consent for gay men; urged MP’s to vote in favour of the discriminatory status quo; and encouraged the House of Lords to overturn the 5:2 Commons majority (336 to 129) in favour of equality.

“As President of the Children’s Society –a Church of England charity– Dr. Carey actively discriminates against lesbian and gay people by enforcing the Children’s Society’s ban on homosexual foster parents. This policy results in young people –who could be cared for by loving, responsible gay couples– being left to suffer in the emotional coldness of local authority children’s homes”, said David Allison.

Despite calling in October for “compassion” for General Pinochet, Dr. Carey declines to show similar Christian compassion and forgiveness towards Tatchell. The National Secular Society wrote to Dr. Carey in October, urging that he call for the charge to be dropped, or that he at least ask the court to exercise clemency by not jailing Tatchell. Carey refused.

Canterbury Magistrates’ Court has refused Tatchell permission to summons Dr. Carey as a witness, even though Tatchell satisfied all the legal requirements. The Court declined to give a reason for its refusal. At the same hearing –again without explanation– the Court refused Tatchell access to unused prosecution evidence which the prosecutor has admitted may undermine the case against Tatchell and could help his defence.

It has been suggested that this action by the Court may contravene: Article 14(3)(b) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); Article 6(3) of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms; and Principle 21 of the Basic Principles on the RĂ´le of Lawyers, which states: “It is the duty of the competent authorities to ensure lawyers access to appropriate information, files and documents in their possession or control in sufficient time to enable lawyers to provide effective legal assistance to their clients. Such access should be provided at the earliest possible time.”

Tatchell has been involved in over 1,000 direct action and civil disobedience protests during his 30 years of campaigning for lesbian and gay human rights. He has been convicted only once (following a peaceful protest in 1994 against Muslim fundamentalists who were advocating the murder of homosexuals): but that conviction was overturned on appeal.


We oppose religious privilege and support the right to peaceful protest. As well as deploring the prosecution of Peter Tatchell under the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860, we strongly believe that a jail term is entirely inappropriate for a peaceful protest in defence of human rights.

We furthermore call for the repeal of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860: it gives the church unique and sweeping powers to suppress dissent. This is unacceptable in a modern democracy.

To add your voice to this appeal, cut and paste the above two paragraphs; add your name, address, and any official capacity in which you are signing; and email to: John Hunt, OutRage! London

Canterbury Magistrates’ Court, Broad Street. CT1 2UE; Tel. 01304-21.86.00; Fax 01227-45.77.27

Canterbury Visitor Centre, 34 St. Margaret’s Street; Tel. 01227-76.65.67.