The Prime Minister's office has said that it will consult Britain's churches over the scrapping of the country's blasphemy laws, after the principled need to do so was strengthened by a tabled amendment in the House of Commons.
Downing Street's intervention came ahead of a parliamentary vote yesterday which would almost certainly have seen backbenchers demanding the repeal of legislation now regarded by most as archaic and unjust.
Opponents of the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel, designed to protect the Established Church in particular, and which criminalise the "scurrilous vilification" of Christianity, include MPs, civil rights campaigners led by Liberty, senior church figures (including the retired Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey), the British Humanist Association, satirists Ricky Gervais and Rowan Atkinson, writers and journalists including Philip Pullman, the National Secular Society, the Christian think-tank Ekklesia and others of all faiths and none.
Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP whose amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration bill provoked the government move, welcomed the concession.
He declared: "As a result of the government's acceptance of the need to repeal ... Britain will no longer have an ... illiberal blasphemy offence and will be in a far better position to ensure respect for human rights in countries like Sudan, Pakistan and elsewhere."
Ekklesia has pointed out that there are strong religious as well as secular arguments against blasphemy laws. Jesus himself was arraigned, tried and executed on a charge of blasphemy, and the notion of a transcendent God needing human protection is both theologically incoherent and itself blasphemous in many traditions.
However Don Horrocks of the Evangelical Alliance says that repeal would signal that protecting Jesus, God and the Bible was no longer regarded as so important within society.
Keith Vaz MP, chair of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, and a member of the Christian Socialist Movement, said the government had faced defeat yesterday.
"It is a pretty arcane law," he declared. "It is old and unnecessary, and it does need to be modernised. What they need to do is bring that forward as quickly as possible."
A major role in getting blasphemy laws close to abolition has inadvertently been played by Stephen Green of the pressure group Christian Voice, whose campaign against 'Jerry Springer - The Opera' has encouraged free speech campaigners to give greater priority to the issue.
The Prime Minister does "fully understand" the case made for abolition, a Downing Street spokesperson said.
He added: "However, we do believe it is necessary to consult with the churches, particularly the Anglican church, before coming to a final decision, and that's what we are doing. Subsequent to that, we will consider moving amendments in the House of Lords."
The Church of England seems to have reluctantly acknowledged that abolition is inevitable, urging "caution" in proceeding. "We are open to the possibility of a review," said a spokesperson.
The government had originally indicated that blasphemy laws would be repealed in the light of the Religious and Racial Hatred Act, but had then failed to act further, pushing the matter into the lap of campaigners and backbenchers.