Friday, January 11, 2008

Blasphemy in Britain?

It is hard to believe, but the United Kingdom still has a law against blasphemy on the books. Even worse, this ridiculous anachronism was used by a conservative Christian group just last November to press charges against the BBC. The offending incident was the network's televising of Jerry Springer-The Opera (no, I am truly not making this up). Fortunately, the case was thrown out by the courts in December.

The one good thing that has come out of this incident is that it has prompted calls to do away with this archaic statute. Norm Geras links to one such appeal, which was published in the January 8 Daily Telegraph. The authors of the letter, a mix of secular and religious intellectuals, do an excellent job of pointing out the problems with the law:

Sir - In the light of the widespread outrage at the conviction of the British teacher for blasphemy in Sudan over the name of a teddy bear is it not time to repeal our own blasphemy law?

The ancient common law of blasphemous libel purports to protect beliefs rather than people or communities. Most religious commentators are of the view that the Almighty does not need the "protection" of such a law.

We are representatives of religious, secular, legal and artistic opinion in this country and share the view that the blasphemy offence serves no useful purpose. Yet it allows partisan organisations or well-funded individuals to try to censor broadcasters or intimidate small theatres, print media or publishers.

Far from protecting public order - for which other laws are more suited - it damages social cohesion.

It is discriminatory in that it only covers attacks on Christianity and Church of England tenets and thus engenders an expectation among other religions that their sensibilities should also be protected by the criminal law (as with the attempt to charge Salman Rushdie) and a sense of grievance among minority religions that they do not benefit from their own version of such a law.

As the Law Commission acknowledged in 1985, when it recommended repeal, it is uncertain in scope, but lack of intention is no defence, and the law is unlimited in penalty.

This, together with its chilling effect on free expression and its discriminatory impact, leaves it in clear breach of human rights law. In the end, no one is likely to be convicted under it.


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