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Protest in the cathedral `political', says Tatchell

THERE could be "no more appropriate time or place" to protest against the Archbishop of Canterbury's attitude to homosexuals than during his Easter Day sermon in Canterbury Cathedral, the gay rights activist Peter Tatchell told a court yesterday.

Wearing a bright purple shirt and a red ribbon for World Aids day, the Australian-born OutRage campaigner described how, after he took to the pulpit, he was "scratched and clawed" from behind as officers tried to remove him. A church steward hit his hands in an effort to prise his fingers off the microphone, and the congregation shouted "Get out, get out!", Canterbury Magistrates' Court was told.

Mr Tatchell, 46, stands accused of "indecent behaviour in a church" under an obscure ecclesiastical law last invoked more than 30 years ago. If found guilty, he could be fined pounds 200 or face a maximum prison sentence of two months.

Mr Tatchell said he was "staggered" to be told of the existence of the law, which gives special protection to the church. Section two of the Ecclesiastical Court Jurisdiction Act 1860 - formerly part of the Brawling Act 1551 - outlaws any "riotous, violent or indecent behaviour" in any church building or burial ground.

The last person to be convicted under the provisions of this Act was Nicolas Walter, a former vice-president of the National Secular Society. He was jailed for two months in 1967 for shouting out "You hypocrites! How can you use the Word of God to justify your policies?" at a Methodist service during the Labour Party conference in Brighton. He was protesting against the Government's stance on Vietnam.

Mr Tatchell took to the witness box with bravado. He spoke loudly, sometimes raising his voice above that of the prosecution barrister. He smiled occasionally, such as when he recalled how he had sat quietly with his Bible to while away the minutes before he staged his protest. "I read the beautiful love poetry of the Song of Solomon," he said. But most of the time he was solemn, likening himself to a suffragette, and the Archbishop of Canterbury to the leaders of the Dutch Reform Church during Apartheid.

Earlier in the day, Mark Punton, the verger responsible for escorting the Archbishop of Canterbury to the pulpit for the Easter Day sermon, described how he was duped into making way for Mr Tatchell and his six fellow OutRage protesters. During the sermon, Mr Punton stood at the bottom of the pulpit steps to fulfil a role that was once protective but is now, usually, ceremonial. He told the court how a man had pretended to have an asthma attack to divert him.

Mr Punton also told the court that the congregation was "quite disturbed" that the protest had happened on "what, for the Christian church, is one of the holiest days in the calendar". However, Mr Tatchell maintained that his "direct action" tactics had not been offensive. "I didn't abuse the Archbishop or insult the church," he said. "I didn't attack the Christian religion. I simply said that Dr (George) Carey supports discrimination of lesbian and gay people and detailed the various ways in which he opposes lesbian and gay human rights."

He insisted that he had not disrupted the "sacred" part of the service - such as the Eucharist or prayers - but had deliberately intervened during the "political" part of the service. Since Dr Carey had elected to speak on the subject of Northern Ireland during his sermon, Mr Tatchell felt entirely justified in raising another political topic. "If he (Dr Carey) had been violating the rights of Jewish people or black people, I think people would have had a degree of outrage and anger at what he was doing."

The National Secular Society has collected more than 700 signatures - including those of Sir Ludovic Kennedy, Sir Ian McKellen, Alan Bennett and Vanessa Redgrave - to a petition calling for the repeal of the 1860 Act. If Mr Tatchell's protest had been in any other public place, he could only have been charged with a public order offence, which would be unlikely to result in a custodial sentence. The trial continues.

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