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Last week, John Sherwood, a UK Christian pastor and street preacher, was acquitted of hate speech by the Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court following his April 2021 arrest. Police who arrested Sherwood accused him of causing “alarm and distress” in London by preaching about the biblical definition of marriage, proclaiming that the family unit should encompass and father and a mother, as directed by God, not two fathers or two mothers, according to Genesis 1: 27-28.

That’s quite a stretch from the scripture. Here’s what those two verses say:

So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

It seems the above scripture refers to procreation, not any sort of romantic relationship, marriage, or otherwise. And indeed, the Bible is correct here—biological male and female humans are needed for such a task, in some way or another (for now). But marriage or raising children? No, that’s not here. So it seems the good pastor is inserting his own intolerant beliefs into his preaching, spewing anti-LGBTQ+ hate in public.

During his trial, Sherwood inserted scripture repeatedly, using it partially as his defense, saying that he couldn’t possibly be guilty of hate speech because everything that he ever preaches upon is grounded in the final authority of God’s word, the Bible.

But is that really a valid defense?

Should it be so that just because something is in the Bible, it couldn’t or shouldn’t be viewed as hate speech?

I argue that speech should be judged on its own contents, rather than the source it’s derived from.

We’ve all come across street preachers in our lives, and they basically have the same message: You’re going to hell unless you repent and revise your sinful lifestyle. They’re many times holding signs that list who the sinners are, and we each probably identify with two-thirds of the list: fornicators, porn-watchers, gays, lesbians, atheists, drinkers, drug users, you get the idea. Sometimes they throw some fun ones up there. When I was in college we had a preacher come to campus with “fraternity brothers, science majors, and whore mongers” on the list. That was entertaining. Got to give him credit for adapting to his audience.

Image source: @patriottakes/Twitter

It doesn’t really matter where someone gets their opinions from or why they’re saying it—hate speech is hate speech. These street preachers who yell at strangers in public, telling them they’re going to hell, calling them “faggots and queers” and “whores” should definitely be penalized for disturbing the peace or whatever charge makes the most sense. Last week, I attended a minor league baseball game, and one of these idiots was outside the entrance sharing his asinine opinions. I was with my kids and had to steer them clear of his hateful rhetoric so they wouldn’t hear him or see his signs. They have enough to worry about in their own lives without someone filling their heads with threats and lies, telling them they’re evil or worthy of a fiery fate.

So no, claiming a biblical source for your hate speech is not a valid defense in my opinion. If nothing else, it should raise awareness of just how much hate is contained in the “good book” and inspire Christians to question its teachings more.

I know, I know… “that’s the Old Testament stuff. We follow the New Testament now. It’s full of love.” Well, you might want to check out Revelation then—it tends to be the basis of many of these people’s rants.

What do you think? Is this free speech, or hate speech, or both? Where do we draw the line?

Kevin Davis is a columnist and activist focused on topics associated with life as a nonreligious American. He's a father of two boys in a predominantly Christian town in Western NY and writes about the...