The High Court has allowed a legal challenge by activist Stephen Green to a magistrate's decision not to issue a private prosecution for blasphemy over Jerry Springer the Opera.
Mr Justice Underhill has granted a judicial review of the ruling of District Judge Caroline Tubbs not to issue a summons on the application of the head of a small group, Christian Voice, which made big media waves when the BBC and others mistakenly thought it had galvanised 50,000 protestors against the Jerry Springer show.
In fact that accolade belonged to the Evangelical Alliance UK and Premier Christian Radio. Other Christians, including the Bishop of Worcester and those associated with the show, argued against censorship. And the Christian think-tank Ekklesia said that it would be better for churches to engage with the issues raised by the satire, rather than to try to ban it.
Both religious and non-religious groups opposed to the UK’s blasphemy law, which was originally promulgated to protect an Anglican version of Christianity from insult due to the establishment of the Church of England under the Crown, believe that, contrary to Mr Green’s designs, his case may finally help to bury the archaic legislation.
Mr Green came to prominence when his website published details of those associated with the West End production, subsequently shown on BBC2, resulting in threats against them. He removed the names, but has kept up a campaign on the issue ever since, seeing the negative response to his tactics (within the churches too) as a confirmation of his rightness.
Stephen Green made a case in January 2007 against both the Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, a Christian himself, who allowed Jerry Springer the Opera to be screened on BBC2, and the show's producer, Jonathan Thoday, who staged it at the Cambridge Theatre in London's West End and then in a nation-wide tour.
But sitting at Horseferry Road Magistrates' Court, the District Judge refused to allow the summons to be issued.
Lawyers for both Mark Thompson and Jonathan Thoday submitted papers to the High Court as interested parties. Those papers were read by Mr Justice Underhill together with the application for judicial review from Stephen Green and the ruling of District Judge Tubbs.
The judicial review will proceed to a full hearing. However, Mr Justice Underhill was careful not to prejudge either the hearing or any ultimate prosecution.
He declared: “I should in the circumstances of this case emphasise that I am saying no more than that the challenge to the District Judge's decision was arguable. That does not necessarily mean that it will succeed; still less that any eventually prosecution would succeed.”
Legal observers suggest that the case might have been accepted to test a wider issue about private prosecutions in such cases, rather than because of the merits of Mr Green’s claims. The High Court will give a date for the judicial review hearing in a couple of weeks, but it could still be a long time in coming.
The vast majority of those who originally complained about Jerry Springer The Opera had not seen it when they did so. The case also aroused strong opposition to censorship and blasphemy laws – and gained the show more publicity than it could ever have imagined or wished.