New Commons push for an end to Britain's blasphemy laws

By staff writers
January 8, 2008

An MP will this week seek to bring an end to Britain's controversial blasphemy laws - as a broad cross-section of believers, humanists and civil rights campaigners continue to argue that they are unnecessary, repressive and outdated.

Today British Humanist Association (BHA) and the comedian Stewart Lee urged MPs to vote for the abolition of the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel when it is considered by the Commons at the instigation of Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris.

Christian think tank Ekklesia renewed its call for the repeal of the offences last November, in the wake of an attempt by an individual to seek judicial review in the High Court of a Magistrates Court's refusal of a private prosecution against the BBC for broadcasting 'Jerry Springer - The Opera'.

Blasphemous libel claims can still be brought against the publication of any matter that insults, offends, or vilifies Christ or the Christian (principally Anglican) religion - whether the publication intended to be blasphemous or not.

Hanne Stinson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, said today: "The abolition of the outdated blasphemy laws is long overdue. Those laws are supported neither by the public nor by the courts – as evidenced by the recent refusal by the High Court to allow a blasphemy case against the BBC Director-General to go ahead. The blasphemy laws in the UK – which protect only Anglican beliefs in any case – are clearly contrary to the principle of free speech, are probably contrary to human rights laws which protect freedom of expression, and are totally out-of-place in the context of our increasingly diverse and increasingly non-religious society."

Defenders of the blasphemy laws often highlight the fact that they are not used in effect, but recent years have seen a number of attempts to invoke them. Comedian and BHA supporter Stewart Lee’s ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera’ was the subject of protests by religious campaigners against free speech which had a negative impact on the production and even went as far as court.

Mr Lee commented: "Britain is one of the most secular societies in the world where the right to free speech is protected by law, but even so there are many religious groups trying to censor people just because they don’t like what they’re saying. The archaic laws against blasphemy appear to give them legitimacy."

Simon Barrow, co-director of Ekklesia commented: "Privileging one religion above other views is indefensible in a democracy, and for Christians there is the added irony that Christ was himself arraigned on a charge of blasphemy. Using the law to attack opinions about belief is to misuse it, and suggesting that God needs protection against free speech makes no theological sense at all."

He added: "The Christian message is about the power of self- giving love, not the love of one's own power. This is why it is wrong religiously as well as legally and democratically."

BHA's Stinson observed: "The very fact that attempts to prosecute using the blasphemy laws are going all the way to the High Court proves that those laws are not dead letters and that they continue to have the potential to negatively affect people’s lives. That we still have these laws is an outrage, but they could be abolished very quickly and easily, which is why we are delighted to see a proposed amendment in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill which intends to do just that."

Others who have spoken out against blasphemy laws include the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey of Clifton, a noted religious conservative, responding to comments by Ekklesia co-director Jonathan Bartley on BBC1's Sunday morning current affairs and religion programme, 'The Big Questions' last year (25/11/07).

Leading civil rights campaign Liberty says that the offence of blasphemy violates Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights protecting free speech.

Campaigners argue that it should also be decriminalised in English law because of its lack of legal certainty, as the Irish Supreme Court in Corway versus Independent Newspapers held in 2000.

An amendment to abolish the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel has been tabled by Evan Harris MP to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill.

Mr Harris is a prominent secularist and atheist. But it is understood that he has sought support from MPs of all faith and none, emphasising that the issue is not one that need divide on grounds of belief.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.