Unless Americans respond to the Supreme Court’s recent marriage decisions with greater protections for the rights of conscience, our first freedom is sure to lose force, just as it has in the UK.
Over the past twenty years I have witnessed firsthand the steady assault on the rights of citizens in Britain to speak and act according to their conscience. During that time different parts of the British state, including our Parliament, publicly funded organizations, and the judiciary, have opposed and punished the expression of belief and conscience.
My American friends are, like me, horrified at this rapid deterioration in personal liberty and freedom in the UK. Most of them believe, however, that the First Amendment would stop such a thing from happening in the “land of the free.”
The First Amendment is a magnificent and precious defense of personal liberty, and I hope that my friends are right; but my own experiences represent a cautionary tale for truly liberal-minded Americans. I want to share with you four brief examples from my own legal experience.
The first case that drew my attention to conscience restrictions arose in 2001. A street preacher named Harry Hammond went into Bournemouth city center carrying a placard that read, “Jesus Gives Peace, Jesus Is Alive, Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism, Jesus Is Lord.” He set up his placard and, as he started to speak, a crowd surrounded him, pushed him to the ground, threw water and soil at him, and pulled down his sign.
The police arrived, noted that Hammond had been attacked, and arrested him for inciting the attack he had suffered. They did not arrest anyone who had assaulted him. He was found guilty, and ordered to pay fines and costs totaling $1,000. Shortly after his conviction he was hospitalized, recovered, but shortly thereafter died.