Christian hotel owners hauled before court after defending their beliefs in discussion with Muslim guest
By Jonathan Petre – dailymail.co.uk
Last updated at 12:22 AM on 20th September 2009
A Christian couple have been charged with a criminal offence after taking part in what they regarded as a reasonable discussion about religion with guests at their hotel.
Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang were arrested after a Muslim woman complained to police that she had been offended by their comments.
They have been charged under public order laws with using ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words’ that were ‘religiously aggravated’.
The couple, whose trial has been set for December, face a fine of up to £5,000 and a criminal record if they are convicted.
Although the facts are disputed, it is thought that during the conversation the couple were challenged over their Christian beliefs.
It is understood that they suggested that Mohammed, the founder of Islam, was a warlord and that traditional Muslim dress for women was a form of bondage.
They deny, however, that their comments were threatening and argue that they had every right to defend and explain their beliefs.
Mrs Vogelenzang, 54, who has run the Bounty House Hotel near Aintree racecourse in Liverpool with her husband Ben, 53, for six years, said: ‘Nothing like this has happened to us before. We are completely shocked.’
She added that the episode had damaged their business and they had been forced to lay off staff and run the nine-bedroom hotel by themselves, leaving them exhausted.
Sources said that a number of guests staying at the hotel, which charges £92 a night for a double room, were having breakfast in its restaurant on March 20 when comments were made about religion.
One of those involved was the Muslim woman, who was staying at the hotel while she received treatment at a hospital nearby.
The couple, who are members of the Bootle Christian Fellowship, and their solicitor, David Whiting, said they could not discuss the content of the conversation for legal reasons. But the independent lobby group, the Christian Institute, which has seen both the prosecution and defence legal papers, is supporting their defence.
Mr Whiting, who last year successfully defended street preacher Anthony Rollins in Birmingham, said: ‘There is a dispute as to the facts of the allegations, but Ben and Sharon do not accept they were threatening, abusive or insulting.
‘They are committed Christians and it is the defence’s contention that they have every right to defend their religious beliefs and explain those beliefs to others who do not hold similar views.’
After the incident, the couple voluntarily attended St Anne’s Street police station in Liverpool, where they were interviewed under caution.
In July they were arrested and charged under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 and Section 31 (1) (c) and (5) of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.
They appeared briefly at Liverpool Magistrates Court on Friday to hear the date of their trial before magistrates, and were granted bail on the condition that they did not approach any of the witnesses expected to appear.
The use by the police of the Public Order Act to arrest people over offensive comments has dismayed a number of lawyers, who say the legislation was passed to deal with law and order problems in the streets.
Neil Addison, a prominent criminal barrister and expert in religious law, said: ‘The purpose of the Public Order Act is to prevent disorder, but I’m very concerned that the police are using it merely because someone is offended.
‘It should be used where there is violence, yobbish behaviour or gratuitous personal abuse. It should never be used where there has been a personal conversation or debate with views firmly expressed.
‘If someone is in a discussion and they don’t like what they are hearing, they can walk away.’
He added that the police had a legal duty under the Human Rights Act to defend free speech ‘and I think they are forgetting that’.
A number of Church leaders in Liverpool have written to Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, voicing their concerns and pressing for the case to be dropped.
Christian Institute spokesman Mike Judge said ‘important’ issues of religious liberty were at stake.
‘In recent years, we have backed several cases where Christians have suffered unfair treatment because of their faith,’ he said. ‘We have detected a worrying tendency for public bodies to misapply the law in a way that seems to sideline Christianity more than other faiths.’
A spokesman for Merseyside Police said: ‘It would be inappropriate to comment as this is an ongoing case.’