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Tuesday, December 1, 1998 Published at 15:49 GMT


Tatchell fined £18.60 for pulpit protest

Peter Tatchell: "Defending human rights"

A court has found Peter Tatchell, the gay rights campaigner who interrupted the Archbishop of Canterbury's Easter sermon, guilty of indecent behaviour in a church.

Emily Buchanan: "The magistrate concluded the protest was insignificant in the life of a great cathedral"
He was fined £18.60 after the little-used 1860 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act was proved against him.

He was also ordered to pay £320 costs.

Canterbury Magistrates Court was told that the act was a derivative of the 1551 Brawling Act, for which the penalty was the cutting off of ears and branding.

[ image: The archbishop's pulpit was taken over by protesters]
The archbishop's pulpit was taken over by protesters
Sentencing, stipendiary magistrate Michael Kelly said he regarded the offence as the "equivalent of a minor public order offence".

Mr Tatchell, who described himself in court as a writer and journalist, asked for 28 days to pay the fine.

Outside, he said: "I deplore the fact that the court has found me guilty for exercising my right to free speech and peaceful protest.

"I have been found guilty in a court of law but I would not regard myself as being found morally guilty of a crime."

Surrounded by supporters, he said: "I stood up in Canterbury Cathedral to demonstrate against Dr Carey's support of the abuse of human rights of gay and lesbian people.

"I supported equality. He is the guilty person. He is the person who supported the abuse of human rights."

More than 700 people have signed a Secular Society petition calling for the abolition of the act used against Mr Tatchell.

Earlier, MP Tony Benn appeared in Canterbury Magistrates Court as a character witness.

[ image: Tony Benn MP:
Tony Benn MP: "He is a peaceful man"
Mr Benn, Labour MP for Chesterfield, said: "I have known Peter Tatchell since 1981. I have a very high respect for him.

"He is a peaceful man committed to the human rights issue. He is non-violent in character, consistent in manner."

Mr Benn compared Tatchell's protest on 12 April this year to that of suffragettes and conscientious objectors.

Mr Tatchell, 46, who founded the gay pressure group Outrage!, faced a maximum sentence of two months in jail or a £2,000 fine under the act, which was last used in 1966.

He argued that his rights to free speech and peaceful protest under the European Convention of Human Rights had been violated by the prosecution.

His solicitor Mark Guthrie cited the Human Rights Act 1998, which was only given Royal Assent in November.

In his closing speech on Tuesday, the second day of the two-day trial, Mr Guthrie said: "At no time did Mr Tatchell say or do anything so as to prevent anyone from enjoying their right to worship."

He added: "The church is a robust institution. It has always been the centre of vigorous debate. The archbishop has expressed views on gay and lesbian rights which some people may find offensive."

'Some disgusted'

Sentencing, Mr Kelly said: "The offence as far as I am concerned is the equivalent of a minor public order offence.

"You are a man of previous good character and you have a clear commitment to your cause and a belief in non-violent protest.

"The incident lasted at most for a few minutes. No one was hurt and the service resumed shortly afterwards."

Mr Kelly added: "It is always difficult to balance the right to protest against the right to belief and worship.

"I am sure that some people will have been disgusted and truly offended by your conduct.

"I suspect that the vast majority would regard your conduct as a insignificant and transient incident in the history of a great cathedral."

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