LIVERPOOL, England - A Christian couple in England is now at risk of losing their business after being prosecuted for debating Islam with a Muslim guest.
Police arrested Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang, who run the Bounty House Hotel in Liverpool, after a Muslim woman complained that she was offended by comments made to her in March. Because the legal case is ongoing the couple cannot comment publicly.
According to newspaper reports, the debate at the hotel involved discussion of whether Jesus was the son of God or just a minor prophet of Islam. Newspapers also reported the debate included comments that Mohammed was a warlord and Muslim dress for women was a form of bondage.
The facts of the case are disputed, according to Mike Judge of the Christian Institute, a legal organization helping fund the couple's defense.
He says it's important that Christians defend their right to talk about their faith.
"Freedom of speech is something that is protected in England. But it is being eroded and there are cases of Christians now being told by police officers that they are not allowed to express their religious beliefs," he said. "This has caused the couple serious financial harm. The hotel has seen an 80 percent drop in its income, because a local hospital used to book its local outpatients there."
"As a result of this case and the criminal charges that have been put against these Christians, the hospital has decided not to send its outpatients there anymore," he continued.
Despite that, Judge says the couple has been overwhelmed by the support they've received from Christians around the world.
"They've been tremendously encouraged by hundreds and hundreds of Christians from all over the world emailing them to say, 'we're standing, we're praying with you, we're horrified that this is happening to you and we hope that you succeed in your legal defense,'" he said.
The pair is being prosecuted for a public order offense, when someone feels insulted for their membership of a religious group.
Judge says the case raises significant free speech and religious liberty issues.
"The reason this case is so important is that the freedom to share the Gospel in a Christian country really needs to be paramount and if people can't get involved in a debate about religion then we are losing our freedom of speech," he said. "This is not just an issue that we're facing in Britain, but we're facing it in other Western countries as well and Christians across those nations have to stand together to defend our freedom of speech."
A criminal trial is set for December 8at Liverpool Magistrates' Court.
If convicted the couple could face a maximum fine of $8,000. They'll also have a criminal record.
*Originally published October 16, 2009