Police investigate Attleborough church ‘hate incident’ after sign suggests non-Christians will ‘burn in hell’ - but what do you think?
A south Norfolk church has agreed to remove a sign suggesting non-Christians would “burn in hell” after a complaint prompted a police investigation.
The Attleborough Baptist Church sign was looked at as a “hate incident” after Robert Gladwin objected to the slogan “if you think there is no God, you’d better be right” - with flames underneath the message.
But police said the pastor of the church had agreed to remove the sign.
Mr Gladwin, 20, who spotted the sign on Leys Lane while heading home to Hargham Road, said: “I was just astounded really. We live in the 21st century and they have put that message - that non-Christians will burn in hell - up to try and scare people into joining their mentality.”
Mr Gladwin decided to contact the police after comparing the message to other forms of hate speech.
A spokesperson for the police said: “Norfolk Constabulary received a report regarding a poster outside a church in Attleborough which was deemed offensive by the complainant.
“National guidance required us to investigate the circumstances and the matter has been recorded as a hate incident. Having spoken to the pastor of the church, it has been agreed the poster will be taken down.”
Mr Gladwin added: “It is my basic understanding that Christianity is inclusive and loving in nature.
“The message being displayed outside of the church could not be further from the often uttered phrase ‘love thy neighbour’.”
The church and the community
Balancing freedom of speech and respect for others is a struggle that has seen churches and communities come to blows.
The Norwich Reformed Church was banned from using a market stall on Hay Hill in to hold its weekly outreach service in 2012, after receiving complaints about “hate-motivated” leaflets.
The complaints prompted a review of the materials produced by Reverend Alan Clifford, pastor of the church, and the council contacted police as materials – particularly the leaflet entitled Why Not Islam – were considered to be hateful.
At the time, Rev Clifford said that an “extraordinarily silly” form of “political correctness” had emerged.
The same pastor provoked further complaints to the police last year over offensive comments in an email to Norwich Pride – a group which organises an annual gay parade in the city.
In January 2009 the British Humanist Association launched an advertising campaign on buses in London, made up of posters disputing the existence of god.
They read: “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
Originally just intended for buses in London, the appeal to fund the adverts was so popular that the campaign was expanded across the UK.
It began after comedy writer Ariane Sherine wrote an article about Christian adverts running on London buses – linking to a website which suggested that non-Christians would burn in hell.
Chris Copsey, of the Norfolk Humanists, described the sign as “pernicious nonsense”.
He added: “I believe the people of Attleborough have more common sense than to give this sign any credence.”
But the complaints have provoked concerns about the church’s freedom of speech.
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: “Personally I don’t find it offensive. But we did fight a long battle of freedom of speech together with Christian groups because we believe that freedom of speech is essential to a functioning society.
“If you don’t give it to everybody then it isn’t free speech and as long as they aren’t inciting violence or trying to get people to do things that are against the law then I think it is acceptable to say whatever you want to say.”
Mr Sanderson added that if he felt uncomfortable with the sign, he would put up one himself – and said that police activity over the message was equivalent to “banning the Bible”.
The sign is filled with upcoming events and at the bottom says that visitors “can always be sure of a very warm welcome”.
The Rev Simon Ward of the Diocese of Norwich believed the sign was intended as a vessel for debate.
“I guess they are trying to open a conversation and cause people to think. However, I think there are more positive conversations that you could have and more positive reasons for coming to church,” he said.
Attleborough Baptist Church was not available for comment.
■ What do you think of the sign? Take our poll or tweet @EDP24 with your reaction.
■ To read Steve Downes’ views on the controversial sign, see tomorrow’s EDP.