Saturday, March 08, 2008

Britain Abolishes Blasphemy Laws

On Wednesday March 5, 2008, Britain's House of Lords formally abolished the United Kingdom's ancient common law against blasphemy.

Highlights from Hansard of the Lords' debate include this distinguished, and oh-so-very-British speech from one Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer in support of abolition:

I also remind noble Lords that this is the fifth time that this House has considered this issue. It was previously considered in 2005 during the passage of the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, in 2002 during the Religious Offences Bill, in 2001 during the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, and in 1995 during the Blasphemy (Abolition) Bill. At each stage, Parliament has had the same information before it and has been able to draw on the results of serious parliamentary scrutiny.

That the law has fallen into disuse is evident from the fact that there have been no public prosecutions in almost 90 years—since 1922—and it has been more than 30 years since the last private prosecution. In fact, coming new to this debate, I asked my officials to go back a little further. There was hardly a rash of prosecutions before 1922. I have been able to find only two cases. The first was in 1676, when a Mr Taylor was made to stand in the pillory "in three several places" and had to pay a 1,000 marks fine for,

“uttering of divers blasphemous expressions horrible to hear”.

Hard on the heels of that event, there was one in 1841, when a Mr Haslam, in a pamphlet castigating the clergy of all denominations, described the Old Testament as “wretched stuff” and a “disgrace to orang-utans”. That was 20 years before the great Oxford debates on belief, religion and science. I am assured by my noble friend Lady Hollis, who knows about these things, that that case was probably something to do with the secularist movement and the Chartists. I am sure that she is right. Its author was described as a random idiot and he was held guilty of blasphemous libel and of appealing to the wild and improper feelings of the human mind—I suggest, anticipating notions of civil strife. It was 80 years before the law was invoked again.

... I am making this excursion into history not to be flippant—far from it—but simply to illustrate that, when we say that the law has fallen into disuse, perhaps we should really say that the law has never been found to be usable. The recognition that the offences appear to be moribund was reinforced by the High Court’s decision on 5 December 2007 in the case of Stephen Green v City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court and others, which was a private prosecution for blasphemous libel. The court’s primary judgment was that the Theatres Act 1968 and the Broadcasting Act 1990 now already prevent the prosecution of a theatre, the BBC or another broadcaster for blasphemous libel.

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, commented on the Lords' long-awaited action:

The National Secular Society has been campaigning to abolish the blasphemy laws for 140 years. They have an iniquitous history of persecution, and because it is a common law offence with no limit on punishment, they have resulted in executions and imprisonments with hard labour for people who wrote and said things that would, in the modern day, be considered trivial. It is disgraceful that such a relic of religious savagery has survived into the 21st century.

(h/t: Truthdig: British Lawmakers Strike Down Blasphemy Law)

- Garry J. Wise, Toronto

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