Repealing the Blasphemy Laws

Tomorrow in Parliament, Dr Evan Harris MP will introduce an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill which will seek to repeal the outdated and ridiculous UK blasphemy laws.

To best explain why this is necessary I can only quote the letter that appears in today’s Telegraph:

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.

The Church of England no longer opposes its abolition on principle and the Government has given no principled reason to defend its retention.

We call on MPs to support the amendment proposed by Evan Harris, Frank Dobson and David Wilshire tomorrow to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill and on the Government – which rightly criticises countries like Sudan for their blasphemy laws – to give it a fair wind.

Philip Pullman, Rt Rev Lord Harries of Pentregarth, Ricky Gervais, Nicholas Hytner, Shami Chakrabarti, Professor Richard Dawkins, Rt Rev Lord Carey of Clifton, Professor A.C. Grayling, Sir Jonathan Miller, David Starkey, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, Stewart Lee, Michael Cashman, Joan Smith, Lady D’Souza, Peter Tatchell, Lisa Appignanesi, Hanif Kureishi, Lord Desai, Roger Smith and Hari Kunzru

If you agree that this law should be repealed, then please use WriteToThem to ask your MP to support this amendment.

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3 Comments

  1. Can you explain to me why this is necessary? Since the Human Rights Act came into force this should make this incompatible primary legislation that can be addressed by judicial review, surely?

  2. You’re right. It’s not necessary from a practical point of view. Even if it wasn’t a ridiculous law which was last used successfully over thirty years ago, it’s almost certainly incompatible with the Human Rights Act.However, I believe that repealing this law would have great symbolic value. It would demonstrate to the christians (and the people who periodically campaign for the extension of the law to cover other religions) that their delusions have no place in the secular society that the UK should be striving towards.

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