Today's court appearance marks a new chapter in London's response to street preachers
Those motivated by religion don't always yield to court decisions against them, expert says
Today marks a new chapter in London's complicated history with two men now notorious for their confrontational way of preaching religious doctrine on city streets.
Instead of simply being the subject of online complaints and responses that range from eye-rolling to outrage, Steven Ravbar, 50, and Matthew Carapella, 32, will now have to answer for their actions in court.
After triggering complaints to the city's bylaw enforcement department, the men are due in court today charged with violating a public nuisance bylaw that was amended last summer to directly deal with their behaviour.
The men are known not just for preaching but for actively confronting people on the street — women in particular — and haranguing them for how they're dressed. The men follow a fire-and-brimstone form of evangelism inspired by dead U.S. preacher William Branham.
The men are known for using a loudspeaker to talk about religion on London streets over the past few years. For a while, Londoners appeared to grudgingly tolerate their behaviour.
But complaints have started to increase in recent years. Women said they were called whores for wearing pants, makeup or having short hair cuts.
Also, there are multiple reports about Ravbar and Carapella disrupting church services by challenging priests and parishioners in their places of worship.
Former mayor Matt Brown called for it to end and a city bylaw was amended to make their confrontational behaviour illegal. The street sermons and complaints from passersby didn't stop. Then in March the men were charged under the city's amended nuisance bylaw. On April 5 they were slapped with a charge of criminal mischief for an incident at a south London church in which police say parishioners were confronted.
The question is, will facing charges prompt Ravbar and Carapella to stop — or at least tone down — their in-your-face actions?
Resistant to change
Richard Moon is a University of Windsor law professor who studies hate speech and religious freedom. While he won't predict how Ravbar and Carapella might react, he said people whose religious beliefs bring them into conflict with the law don't always adjust their behaviour in the face of charges.
"Individuals like this are often so determined, so convinced of the righteousness of their actions that they are resistant and persist in behaviours when they think God is on their side."
Moon said the charges against Ravbar and Carapella have some similarities to the case of William Whatcott, an Alberta man who regularly shows up in public places to hand out pamphlets against homosexuality and abortion.
Whatcott was charged with promoting hatred under Saskatchewan's Human Rights code and was the subject of a 2013 ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada that upheld Canada's provisions against hate speech.
Moon says facing legal challenges didn't prompt Whatcott to stop.
"He persists at university campuses, all kinds of places, distributing literature because he is absolutely persuaded that he has a moral duty," said Moon.
Fears about escalation
John Collins of Jeffersonville, IN, worries that court proceedings against Ravbar and Carapella could push them toward more radical actions.
Collins maintains a website that aims to inform people about The Message, the name for a group of people who share Ravbar and Carapella's devotion to Branham.
Collins was raised in a family whose members were followers of The Message. He describes the group as a "destructive cult" that is difficult to escape.
He sees it as a troubling development that Ravbar and Carapella are alleged to have entered a church to confront parishioners less than two weeks ago.
"Whenever someone has been radicalized and then backed into a corner, there are no guidelines to what can happen," he said.
For charges under the nuisance bylaw, the men could faces fines of up to $10,000.
The criminal mischief charges are more serious.
A section of the Criminal Code that describes mischief makes specific mention of actions at churches and other places of worship "motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on ... religion."
A summary conviction could lead to jail time of up to 18 months while an indictable conviction, which Moon says is only likely in the case of repeat offences, could lead to a 10-year jail term.