The first Christian preacher to fall foul of coronavirus laws during the first English lockdown, has had the case against him dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
The loss of religious freedom due to coronavirus regulations during the pandemic has been hotly contested, most notably in the successful judicial review of Scottish restrictions on public worship in March 2021.
On 2 April 2020, Mike Overd, 56, who has been supported by the Christian Legal Centre, refused to stop his street ministry, which he has run in Taunton town centre, Somerset, for over a decade.
Preaching and offering prayer and Bibles in his usual spot at a time when all churches were closed, a complaint from a member of the public followed and officers from Avon and Somerset police came to confront him.
Officers warned Mr Overd that he had to go home under the new Coronavirus restrictions.
Mr Overd, who works exclusively as a preacher and a lay minister, said he was fulfilling his duties as an evangelist, offering pastoral support to those struggling at a time of national crisis – while adhering to official social distancing rules of keeping two metres apart.
He asked the police officers if the authorities were now: ‘banning Christian workers from coming to help people?’
After refusing to go home, officers packed up Mr Overd’s Bibles, and removed him from the area. He was then issued him with a fixed penalty notice for £60.
When Mr Overd’s story broke in April 2020, it deeply divided opinion between those uncertain and fearful about coronavirus, and those who could see in the government restrictions a huge threat to freedom of religion.
Since it takes place outdoors, street ministry involves a very low risk of spreading Covid-19, making restrictions difficult to justify.
As the pandemic unfolded, there were numerous incidents of Christian preachers being arrested and police raiding and shutting down places of worship as a result of the regulations.
85,000 covid fines have been issued with calls for them to be reviewed and even scrapped entirely with many cases clogging up a legal system already under strain.
Contesting the fine, a year and a half later Mr Overd was set to have his case heard at Weston Super-Mere Magistrates Court on Monday 6 September 2021.
Mr Overd’s lawyers had submitted to the CPS that Mr Overd had been out on the streets for the purposes of ‘voluntary or charitable services’ under coronavirus regulations. They argued that the regulations, as interpreted by the police officers on the day, were disproportionate and constituted an unreasonable interference with the Mr Overd’s rights under European law and English common law.
Mr Overd’s case was also backed by expert Christian theologian, Dr Martin Parsons, who reported to the CPS that street preaching is an important part of Evangelical Christianity, even during epidemics.
He said there is: “a long and continuing practice of street preaching and other forms of open-air evangelism in the UK, which is seen by evangelical Christians as being an essential part of fulfilling Christ’s command to preach the Gospel to all people, particularly those who are unlikely to ever enter a church…During times of epidemic this has been viewed as being particularly important as helping men and women to find “peace with God.”
Dr Parsons added that during the great plague of 1665, some of the largest numbers of deaths appear to have been among the clergy and Christian ministers because their ministry was to help people make “peace with God”. In London it was reported that there was great resentment at clergy who deserted their parishes to flee to the countryside during the crisis.
He concluded his report stating that: “From the perspective of Christian Public Theology and Church History the use of Coronavirus regulations to prohibit street preaching raises significant issues relating to the development of freedom of religion in British constitutional history.”
Following the submissions, the CPS decided to drop the case stating: ‘the prosecution is no longer proceeding.’
Control and intimidation
Responding to the news, Mr Overd said: “This is a great victory for Jesus and for freedom of speech. It is a victory that you must be able to go out and preach the gospel, whether there is a terrible virus out there or not. If Christians are called to go, then go we must.
“Looking back to the start of the pandemic, I knew that something was not right with the power the police had been given by the government. It did not sit right with me sitting at home and not going out to preach when people were in need.
“At the time I was lambasted by many for being out seeking to bring a message of hope to people struggling at the start of this crisis. I lost close friends for the stand I took.
“The fact that it has been quietly dropped today after dragging on for 18 months, shows that my case, and the laws in general, have been all about control and intimidation.
“A year and a half on, with draconian measures still in place and more Christian preachers being arrested than ever before, I knew I was right to take a stand and I am glad to have been vindicated.
“It was always wrong for Christian ministries and churches to be shut down at such a moment of need. Never in our history have so many Christians that sought to support the most vulnerable in our communities been treated so badly by the authorities.
“I said at the time that a truly Christian country would see that the church and church workers are essential at a time great crisis. That has not happened, which is truly tragic.
“We must realise as Christians how important our freedoms are and that we give them up and capitulate to state intimidation at our peril.”
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “The coronavirus regulations required society to willingly surrender basic freedoms. Many courageous Christians, seeing the danger in the laws, simply refused to close down their outreach Christian ministries and stop helping people.
“For that many have been disproportionately punished.
“Mike is one of many Christian preachers and outreach workers who have been intimidated and fined during this crisis, but who have ultimately been vindicated and told they have not done anything wrong.
“Christian street preachers are now being arrested every month in the UK for preaching the gospel. This is a phenomenon in our history unique only to the 21st century.
“The powers given to the police during this time have set a dangerous precedent, which are continuing to have a ripple effect despite a return to relative normality.
“We said at the time when this story happened that the coronavirus regulations would have far reaching implications for Christian freedoms in the UK, and this has proven to be so.”