By Vexen Crabtree 2019
Stemming from the Middle Ages, the UK retained its blasphemy laws until they were abolished in 2008 in England and Wales. They were infamous for only protecting Christianity, specifically the Church of England. From 1922 to 1977 there were no prosecutions1. Two new cases then sealed their fate. The first was R. v Lemon (1979), raised by Christian lobbyists offended that a poem about Jesus was published in a gay magazine. The blasphemy laws were considered unenforceable and they faded from memory again. But in 2008, the public were surprised to find the anachronistic concept of blasphemy on the news when another Christian pressure group tried to revitalise it in a new fight against homosexuality. The legal institution found this to contradict British values and European Human Rights Law. The result is that on 2008 May 08, the UK's blasphemy laws were repealed in England and Wales, and they remain inactive and unenforceable in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Free speech, freedom of discussion, freedom of debate, freedom of criticism and inquiry are valued aspects of modern society. "Blasphemy laws are an anachronism" because of the damage they do to good governance - they are "widely abused. Banning words or arguments which one group finds offensive does not lead to social harmony. On the contrary, it gives everyone an incentive to take offence - a fact that opportunistic politicians with ethnic-based support are quick to exploit". But those concepts are disregarded by some religious groups who instead wish to maintain a firm hold on converts. Christian and Islamic laws against blasphemy, when at their most extreme, are equal in severity and strictness. Neil Kressel in his book on religious extremism lists "prohibition against blasphemy" as one of the three most dangerous manifestations of organized religion2. Not surprisingly, both Christianity and Islam have held that conversion attempts, and converting away from the religion, are punishable crimes. That has often meant punishment by death. In the Christian Bible the punishment for blasphemy is stoning (Lev. 24:16), and in the Islamic Qur'an Sura 4:48 says that Allah does not forgive blasphemers, although thankfully most Christians in developed countries no longer observe the harsher instructions from the Bible. Many Islamic institutions consider blasphemy and apostasy (the leaving of Islam) to be the same thing, therefore the punishment for apostasy, which is death, can be given to blasphemers. Much of the advance of intellectual freedom and human rights has been gained in opposition to religious institutions and communities.
“Islamic fundamentalists insist that tolerance is not for them, that non-Muslims must not be allowed to proselytize in their societies, that Islam's followers may not exit the 'true' religion, and that blasphemy is to be punished severely. As it happens, Western Christian civilization insisted on much the same for most of its first two millennia. St. Augustine, citing his favorite text ('Compel them to come in,' Luke 14:16-23), advocated death for heretics. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, heretics 'by right... can be put to death and despoiled of their possessions... even if they do not corrupt others, for they are blasphemers against God.”
The legal system of England was once ruled by the Christian Church; much of "ecclesiastical law" influenced common law. "The offence of blasphemy was originally part of ecclesiastical law. In the seventeenth century, blasphemy was declared a common law offence by the Court of the King's Bench[...]. From the 16th century to the mid 19th century, blasphemy against the Christian religion was held as an offence against common law. [It was used to] to persecute atheists, Unitarians, and others"4. It used to cover all Christian denominations but in an 1838 case it was restricted to protect the "tenets and beliefs of the Church of England"5. This is because the Church of England became the established denomination of the English government, and they tolerated no other forms of Christianity and did not want to protect them.
It was used to persecute the publication of anything that questioned Christian beliefs or the Christian religion. It was an offence to question the Holy Trinity or to question that the Christian Bible was the word of God. Strict and fundamentalist Muslim countries in the present day have the same attitude towards blasphemy of their prophet Muhammad as Christians once did in Europe.
Countries that were historically Christian have often censored whatever mediums established churches could control. The British Board of Film Censors was much-criticized for its Christian bias since its founding in 1912 when it banned film-makers from directly depicting Christ at all. Many other films were similarly curbed and prohibited for infringing upon Christian sensibilities. These bans lasted decades.6.
In R. v. Lemon it was also shown that the defendant's intent didn't matter to the conviction7. In other words, if someone accidentally published something blasphemous, they could have still be tried. "The House of Lords held that there was no need to prove an intention to blaspheme, but rather that it was sufficient to prove that a blasphemous libel [...] had been published"8.
It became apparent in the modern era that there were legal limitations to Blasphemy laws. When the Christian zealot Stephen Green attempted to bring a case against the BBC for showing Jerry Springer - the Opera, judges "said the 1968 Theatres Act prevented any prosecution for blasphemy in relation to public performances of plays and the 1990 Broadcasting Act prevented any prosecution in relation to broadcasts"9.
In "Constitutional & Administrative Law" by Hilaire Barnett (2004)1 it states that for the fifty-five years between 1922 and 1977 there were no prosecutions for blasphemous libel1. It was rightly thought and felt by all that such outdated laws were no longer usable in court. But two cases in 1979 and 1990 highlighted the fact that UK law could still uphold the anachronistic and embarrassing common law offence of "blasphemy".
"The last man to be sent to prison for blasphemy was John William Gott. In 1922 he was sentenced to nine months hard labour for comparing Jesus with a circus clown. In Scotland, there has not been a public prosecution since 1843"5. The 1843 prosecution was when bookseller Thomas Paterson was sentenced at Edinburgh High Court to 15 months in prison for selling blasphemous books4.
In 1979, 1990 and 1997 three cases highlighted the mind-boggling nonsense of the law on blasphemy:
In 1990 R. v. Chief Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate, ex parte Choudhury 3 W.L.R. 986 it was confirmed that blasphemy laws did not protect Muslims from anti-Islam blasphemy, when some British Muslims attempted to invoke the law against Salman Rushdie for his writing of "The Satanic Verses" (1988)10.
In 1997 the British Board of Film Classification banned a 19-minute film called "Visions of Ecstasy", on the grounds that it was blasphemous. In Wingrove v UK (1997) the director claimed his right of free speech (Art. 10 of the European Commission of Human Rights (ECHR)) had been breached, but the Court rejected his claim saying that national governments had "wider margins" on religion.11. The film featured St Theresa having a fantasy about snogging Jesus Christ, with a score composed for it by Steven Severin, the bassist from Siouxsie Sioux and The Banshees. Wingrove's film was unbanned in 2012 and given an 18 certificate12.
England's blasphemy laws originally cover all Christian denominations but in an 1838 case it was restricted to protect the "tenets and beliefs of the Church of England"5. This is because the Church of England became the established denomination of the English government, and they tolerated no other forms of Christianity and did not want to protect them.
The Concise Law Dictionary points out that blasphemy only applied if it affected the Christian God, Jesus Christ, the Christian Bible or the Christian Book of Common Prayer. Something merely had to be "ludicrous" to Christians in order to blasphemy charges to be brought.
An appeal to the House of Lords was made by Muslims to also have the law apply to material that offends them, and "In Lord Scarman's opinion, the law should be extended to protect the religious beliefs and feelings of non-Christians. Lord Scarman stated that: 'In an increasingly plural society such as that of modern Britain it is necessary not only to respect the differing religious beliefs and practices of all but also to protect them from scurrility, vilification, ridicule and contempt'"8.
“This view was not to prevail, however. In R v Chief Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate ex parte Choudhury (1991), it was held that blasphemy remained confined to protection of the Christian religion as exemplified by the established Church of England. [...] That the law should offer such limited and discriminatory protection is both anachronistic and offensive to the principle of equality in a pluralistic society. The Law Commission in 1985 recommended that the offence be abolished.”
Before abolition, there had been various challenges by professional bodies and protests by public movements, against the blasphemy laws.
“In 2002, a deliberate and well-publicised public, repeat, reading of the poem The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name by James Kirkup took place on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square and failed to lead to any prosecution by the Director of Public Prosecutions. It suggested Jesus was gay. An earlier reading in 1977 had led to prosecution. Militant Christians tried to drown out the 2002 reading. “We have won an important victory for free speech and the right to protest”, declared human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. “No one was arrested. The police didn´t even take our names and addresses. The blasphemy law is now a dead letter. If the authorities are not prepared to enforce the law, they should abolish it”. A trial would have involved all those who read and published the poem, including several of Britain´s leading writers, academics and MPs. “The blasphemy law gives the Christian religion privileged protection against criticism and dissent. No other institution enjoys such sweeping powers to suppress the expression of opinions and ideas”, said Peter Tatchell.”
Some Muslims in 1990 and Christians all over the UK have wished to silence critics of religion. Before its abolition, the blasphemy laws were supported by various Christian lobby groups including Christian Voice and the Church of England5, although "George Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, said yesterday that the blasphemy laws should be axed and he believed the Church of England would not seriously oppose such a move"13.
Challenges to the blasphemy law had been made by members of parliament, human rights groups, religious representatives from many non-Church of England faiths, secularists and pressure groups. The biggest set-back was that the law was used so infrequently that hardly anyone cared that it was still there. The government said it would repeal the law when it has time to do so14. The Council of Europe has also resolved that all of Europe should take a similar stance, and repeal blasphemy laws:
“The Council of Europe passed a resolution last week calling on member states to repeal all laws relating to blasphemy. It also said that religious groups must accept that in a free society their activities and doctrines cannot be protected from criticism and open examination. [...]
The resolution, which was passed with a large majority in Strasbourg, said that "criticism of religious groups should be tolerated in democratic societies." However, the council put a limit on religious criticism and freedom of opinion: it was not allowed to incite hatred, disturb the public order or be targeted at members of religious groups.
The NSS has been active in lobbying the Council of Europe on freedom of expression and our Director, Keith Porteous Wood, chaired a Council of Europe session on this topic at the French Senate as part of the process which led to this excellent outcome. Keith Porteous Wood commented: "Freedom of expression is the bedrock of democracy, indeed of our civilisation. The Council of Europe stands out among international organisations in recognising the potential damage to freedom of expression from religion and not caving in to the huge pressure for massively extended blasphemy laws. If only the United Nations and, to a lesser extent, the European Union were as far-sighted in this respect."”
In 2005 I saw that there are two possible ways to fix the blasphemy laws.
The problem with the first method is that there are hundreds of religion with all kinds of absurd, irrational and heartfelt issues that would be deemed "blasphemous". If it was possible to enforce it would lead to massive & impractical restrictions on everyone. This is especially true given that our laws apply no matter the intent, so that everyone would always be blaspheming against some facet of some religion all the time. Even if we made it so that intent to blaspheme was a requirement for conviction, it would not be right in a free society to enforce blasphemy laws for hundreds of religions upon the populace.
Clearly, abolition of the law was the only sensible path.
Prior to 2008, the last time that the UK's blasphemy laws were judged was in the 1970s, after long and hateful campaigns against homosexuality by some Christian groups. The matter came to a head in the legal case of R. v Lemon, raised by Christian lobbyists after a poem about Jesus published in a gay magazine. After that, the blasphemy laws became considered unenforceable and they faded from memory.
But in 2008, the public were surprised to yet again find the anachronistic concept of blasphemy on the news. A Christian pressure group tried to revitalise it in their fight against homosexuality15. The result is that on 2008 May 08, the UK's blasphemy laws were repealed.
In January 2008, a spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that the Government would consider the abolition of the blasphemy laws during the passage of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. The Government consulted with the Church of England and other churches before reaching a decision. The move followed a letter written to The Daily Telegraph at the instigation of MP Evan Harris and the National Secular Society and was signed by leading figures including Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who urged that the laws be abandoned.16
In March 2008 Peers voted for the laws to be abandoned.16
On May 8 2008, the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 abolished the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel in England and Wales, with effect from 8 July 2008.16
Current edition: 2019 Oct 28
Second edition 2008 Sep 06
Originally published 2005 Dec 18
Parent page: United Kingdom: National Successes and Social Failures
All #tags used on this page - click for more:
The Guardian. UK newspaper. See Which are the Best and Worst Newspapers in the UK?. Respectable and generally well researched UK broadsheet newspaper.
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.
(2001, Ed.) From Sacred Text to Internet. Published by Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Aldershot, UK, in association with The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. This was a course book for the OU module "Religion Today: Traditional, Modernity and Change" which ran until 2011. A paperback book.
(2008) "The Pro-Blasphemy Position: Satanism in Action!" (2008). Accessed 2019 Oct 28.
Franck, Thomas M. Murray and Ida Becker Professor of Law and Directory of the Center for International Studies at New York University's School of Law.
(2001) Are Human Rights Universal?. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published in Foreign Affairs 2001, Vol. 80, No 1, pp. 191-204. An e-book.
Kelly, David & Slapper, Gary
(2003) The English Legal System. 6th edition. Originally published 1994. Current version published by Cavendish Publishing Ltd, London, UK. The Amazon link is for the 7th edition.