Hoteliers cleared of insulting Muslim guest

By Lucy Collins,Press Association
Wednesday 09 December 2009 16:20

A pair of Christian hoteliers were cleared today of insulting a Muslim guest for wearing the hijab and berating her for her beliefs.

Benjamin and Sharon Vogelenzang denied using threatening, abusive or insulting words which were religiously aggravated against white British Muslim convert Ericka Tazi, 60.

District Judge Richard Clancy at Liverpool Magistrates Court dismissed the case against them after a two-day trial.

Mrs Tazi told the court yesterday that she was left traumatised after being insulted by the couple while a guest at The Bounty House Hotel in Aintree, Liverpool, on March 20.

She said they laughed at her when she came down wearing a hijab on her final day at the hotel and shouted at her, saying her Islamic dress was a form of bondage and that she had provoked an argument by wearing it.

Mrs Tazi, who converted to Islam when she married a Muslim 18 months ago, was staying at the hotel while she attended a pain management clinic at Aintree Hospital for her fibromyalgia.

She claimed Mr Vogelenzang called the prophet Mohammed a murderer and a warlord and likened him to Saddam Hussein and Hitler.

The Vogelenzangs, who are born again Christians and have five adopted children, told the court that Mrs Tazi seemed determined to provoke a response from them about wearing the hijab.

She also insulted their religion by calling Jesus Christ a minor prophet and said the Bible was untrue, the couple told the court.

Sharon Vogelenzang, 54, admitted suggesting to Mrs Tazi that the hijab was a form of bondage.

She said her views were based on media references to Muslim women and that she understood they lacked the freedom to make many choices in their lives.

But she told the court her hotel was a place of peace and said: "There's no way I would insult any of my guests, I never have done, I never would."

Mrs Vogelenzang told the court they had lost a lucrative contract with Aintree Hospital since being prosecuted, which amounted to them losing 80 per cent of their business.

Benjamin Vogelenzang, 53, who is of Dutch-British heritage, said he gently told Mrs Tazi that "you haven't prayed alone and asked God to prove himself to you" when she questioned the veracity of the Bible.

He denied her assertion that he was jumping up and down and waving his arms around like a whirling dervish.

District Judge Richard Clancy, who heard the case in the absence of a jury, told the couple that religion and politics was the "tinderbox which set the whole thing alight and it would appear because of strongly entrenched positions that is what has happened here".

Explaining his reasons for dismissing the case, he said Mrs Tazi's claim that she was verbally attacked by the couple for up to an hour had not been borne out by other prosecution witnesses, who suggested that any discussions lasted around seven minutes.

Judge Clancy also highlighted Mrs Tazi's use of language. When describing how she was provoked by the couple about her hijab she used words to the effect of: "Would you prefer it if I got my tits out?"

He said: "I mention this because when I read that together with what she said about 'them taking the piss' it doesn't quite form the same religious view that was put to me on the stand".

Judge Clancy said: "I'm not satisfied on the facts that this case has been made out."

His decision was greeted by prolonged applause from the couple's supporters in the public gallery.

Outside, Sharon Vogelenzang told reporters: "We've been found innocent of any crime. It has been a very difficult nine months and we are looking forward to rebuilding our business and getting on with our lives.

"We would like to thank all those who have supported us, our family, our friends, our church and Christians all around the world, and non-Christians.

"And as Christmas approaches we wish everybody peace and goodwill."

A Merseyside Police spokeswoman said in response to the verdict: "We respect the decision of the court today.''