A street preacher in Somerset has been cleared over charges he verbally abused a gay couple in a town centre.

Michael Overd, 47, from Creech St Michael in Somerset, had been accused of telling Craig Manning and Craig Nichol that they were “evil” and would “burn in hell”.

But the Christian Legal Centre-funded defence said Mr Overd was simply reading from the Bible as they passed.

Taunton Deane Magistrates’ Court had heard that the preacher had previously singled the gay couple out when he saw them holding hands in 2010.

The BBC reports him saying: “Even these two dear men whom I have met before, caught in the sin of homosexuality, can have the forgiveness of the sin should they so repent.

“I was not trying to draw to the public the fact that they were homosexuals, I was drawing the public to the fact that they were sinners.

“If I heard someone preaching the things I am accused of preaching I would talk to them about it.”

After the verdict, he said: “This is a case that should never have been brought. Christians like me are being harassed. Thankfully the Magistrates saw the truth of what happened and is happening on a wider scale in our country.”

Andrea Minichiello Williams, CEO of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “This is an important victory for freedom of speech, which is under attack on all fronts. We are determined to fight for the freedom to speak and preach the gospel.

“The Lord Jesus himself spoke directly to sinners; religious speech needs protection as people do not want to hear about ‘sin’ and they try to shut down freedom of speech.”

Dean Lampard, CPS District Crown Prosecutor said: “We take allegations of this nature very seriously and when we reviewed the case in line with the Code for Crown Prosecutors, we determined it was appropriate to charge Mr Overd with harassment. We examined the evidence and were satisfied that there was a realistic prospect of conviction and that it was in the public interest to bring criminal proceedings. We respect the Magistrates’ decision today.

“Everyone has the right to live their life free from harassment and distress and we will continue to work closely with Avon and Somerset Constabulary to investigate any allegations of hate crime of any sort, be it homophobic, racist, religious or disability hate crime.”

Mr Overd was cleared of the charge under Section 4a of the Public Order Act 1986 of using “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour […] thereby causing […] harassment, alarm or distress”.

The Christian Legal Centre had funded Lesley Pilkington’s failed defence against a malpractice charge by the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy last year after offering ‘gay cure’ therapy, currently being appealed.

In another verdict today, the Court of Appeal has upheld a landmark court ruling in favour of a gay couple refused a room by the religious owners of Cornwall hotel.

Three Muslim men have been jailed for handing out a leaftlet outside their mosque in Derby inciting hatred against gays.