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Holes (second from left) leaves Glasgow High Court (HO)

Street illegal

Religion | American evangelist Shawn Holes was arrested in Scotland for 'uttering homophobic remarks'

Shawn Holes was preaching to a crowd in Glasgow, Scotland, when same-sex couples asked the American evangelist what he thought about homosexuality. It wasn't the first time the question had come up; in fact, he hears it asked frequently.

Holes said he answered, "Your homosexuality is the least of your problems. Your problem is your heart." He added that homosexuality is a sin deserving of hell but that all sinners, including himself, deserve God's wrath but are offered salvation. Afterward, police officers arrested Holes and took him to jail-a surprise since he said his fellow preachers had just hours earlier asked an officer if it was acceptable to preach freely and to answer questions about homosexuality. The officer had told them yes.

Although the police were courteous, Holes spent the night in a damp jail cell with only a thin covering and a mat for sleeping on the hard floor. The next day he pleaded guilty to breaching the peace by "uttering homophobic remarks" that were "aggravated by religious prejudice." The court fined him £1,000 pounds (about $1,500)-the highest fine ever levied against a street evangelist, according to Christian Institute's Simon Calvert on Christian Premier Radio.

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Holes, who has returned to the United States, said his intention was to simply answer a question: "We don't single out people because of their sexual preferences, but certainly when they start asking questions we want to make sure they know what the Bible says about what they're doing and what they're practicing."

Other Christian groups hoped that Holes would battle the charges. In fact, Colin Hart, director of The Christian Institute, said in a statement that the institute was "very disappointed" and that they were confident he would have won if he had challenged the charges. Holes stressed that his motives were "pure," saying that he wanted to get back to his father, who is in hospice care, and to his daughter's wedding this July. He was told it would take eight weeks or more to stand trial.

Unlikely allies have spoken up for Holes. He said that he received an email from a prominent atheist expressing support for his right to free speech. Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell called Holes a "homophobe" but condemned the fine as "an attack on free speech and a heavy-handed, excessive response to homophobia." He affirmed Holes' right to free speech and urged public officials to "concentrate on tackling serious homophobic hate crimes, instead of wasting public money on petty, distasteful homophobic ranters."

Free speech is tenuous in the United Kingdom. In 2001 another U.K. street evangelist, Harry Hammond, held up a sign that said, "Jesus gives peace, Jesus is slive, stop immorality, stop homosexuality, stop lesbianism, Jesus is Lord." An angry crowd formed as some threw dirt at Hammond and poured water on him, knocking the 69-year-old man to the ground. Hammond, however, was the one arrested and fined £300 under the Public Order Act 1986. The England and Wales High Court denied an appeal, agreeing that the sign was "insulting" and that Hammond's conduct was "not reasonable."

March 23, 2010, marked the day a new "homophobic hatred" law came into effect in England and Wales. The law has a free speech shield but could carry a sentence of up to seven years of imprisonment for those who "incite hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation." Justice Minister and Deputy Women and Equality Minister Maria Eagle said the law would not prohibit expressions of religious belief but "cover words, behavior or material which is threatening in nature, and which is intended to stir up hatred against people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual."

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