Blasphemy in the UK

 Parliamentary repeals UK blasphemy laws



8th January
2008
  

Parliamentary attempt to abolish blasphemy law...

Amending the Criminal Injustice Bill

NSS logo The Your help urgently needed

We have been working closely with our Honorary Associate Dr Evan Harris MP, who has identified an opportunity to challenge the blasphemy law in the House of Commons.

On Wednesday, 9 January, Dr Harris will table as an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. Below is a letter we have been working on with him which will appear in the Daily Telegraph signed by a large number of other Honorary Associates and prominent supporters of the NSS as well as some other worthy names from a religious and other spheres.

The letter itself makes the case forcibly:

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 we believe it is now 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 small partisan organisations or well-funded individuals to try to censor broadcasters like the BBC and to intimidate small theatres, the printed media and book publishers.

Far from protecting public order — for which other laws are more suited — it actually 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 be also 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 as far back as 1985, when they recommended repeal, it is uncertain in scope, lack of intention is no defence and yet it 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 and in the end no one is ever likely to be convicted under it.

The Church of England no longer opposes its abolition and the Government has given no principled reason to defend its retention. We call upon MPs to support the amendment proposed by Dr Evan Harris, Frank Dobson and John Gummer (tbc) tomorrow during the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill Report stage proceedings and for the Government — which rightly criticises countries like Sudan for their blasphemy laws — to give it a fair wind."

Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is backing the new cross-party attempt by MPs to abolish Britain's blasphemy laws. They are supported by figures including Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former Bishop of Oxford. Other signatories to the letter include Philip Pullman, the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, Ricky Gervais and Richard Dawkins, the Oxford academic and atheist and Nick Hytner the director of the National Theatre.

If you support the abolition of blasphemy laws, we urge you please to write immediately to your MP, preferably by email, explaining you would like them to support Dr Harris's amendment on Wednesday and add in your own words why you think this is important. You could perhaps use some of the ideas in the above letter, but please do not reproduce them all.

It is best if you can to contact your MP by email – you can find out details if you don't know them from this website: www.theyworkforyou.com/mp This allows you to write to the correct MP by putting in your postcode. Whatever method you use to contact your MP, it is essential to include your name and full address.

If for any reason you would prefer to write by letter, you can send it by fax by phoning 020 7219 3000 and asking for the MPs office and requesting a fax number. Alternatively you could write to them at House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA, but in view of the urgency we would urge you to use email or fax if possible.

The NSS has been fighting for the abolition of blasphemy for the whole of its 140 year history. We have been working with Dr Harris on this important issue for some weeks including over the seasonal break assisting with research and soliciting the support of many influential individuals. We know you will want to add your support.

Please act straight away, there is very little time.

 

10th January
2008
  

Modernisation or Repeal?...

Nutter Vaz talks of 'modernisation' of blasphemy law

NSS logo The Church of England gave a cautious welcome last night to the government's pledge to consult it before taking a final decision on repealing the ancient offence of blasphemy.

Downing Street's announcement that it is consulting the churches, particularly the Anglican church, before scrapping the offence came only hours before a Commons vote on the issue.

Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of the Commons home affairs select committee, said the government had faced defeat: It is a pretty arcane law. 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. [if it is unnecessary why does it need modernising?...it needs repealing. I guess nutter Vaz is eyeing the chance to extend it to all religions]

A Church of England spokesman said last night it became clear last year during the debates on the crime of incitement to racial and religious hatred that the church was open to the idea of the blasphemy law being abolished. But first there has to be adequate time to assess the impact of the new legislation, he added.

The government has said it will introduce amendments to the criminal justice bill when it reaches the Lords if the consultations with the churches prove positive. I think it is right there is a proper process and a proper consultation before there is change in legislation, said a Downing Street spokesman.

Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP whose amendment to the criminal justice and immigration bill provoked the government move, welcomed the concession: 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.

Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society said the blasphemy law was harsher now than when one of his predecessors was jailed for the offence in 1921: In a multicultural society no one should have the right not to be offended; we should protect people, not beliefs.

Don Horrocks of the Evangelical Alliance warned repeal would signal that protecting Jesus, God and the Bible was no longer regarded as so important.

 

30th January
2008
  

Update: I Don't Believe in Blasphemy...BUT...

Archnutter of Canterbury proposes Blasphemy II

Rowan Williams The Archnutter of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has called for new laws to protect religious sensibilities that would punish “thoughtless and cruel” styles of speaking.

Williams, who has seen his own Anglican Communion riven by fierce invective over homosexuality, said the current blasphemy law was “unworkable” and he had no objection to its repeal ... BUT ... whatever replaces it should “send a signal” about what was acceptable.

This should be done by stigmatising and punishing extreme behaviours that have the effect of silencing argument.

The Archbishop, delivering the James Callaghan Memorial Lecture said it should not just be a few forms of extreme behaviour that were deemed unacceptable, leaving everything else as fair game.: The legal provision should keep before our eyes the general risks of debasing public controversy by thoughtless and, even if unintentionally, cruel styles of speaking and acting.

Dr Williams said: It is clear that the old blasphemy law is unworkable and that its assumptions are not those of contemporary lawmakers and citizens overall. But as we think about the adequacy of what is coming to replace it, we should not, I believe, miss the opportunity of asking the larger questions about what is just and good for individuals and groups in our society who hold religious beliefs.

Dr Williams was criticised by the National Secular Society who accused him of promoting self-serving and dangerous ideas. Terry Sanderson, president, said that the Archbishop’s speech was a blatant pitch for new legislation to replace the blasphemy laws that the Government are planning to scrap.

The Government is at present consulting the Church of England about its plans to repeal the blasphemy laws before introducing the changes when the Criminal Justice Bill is in committee stage in a few weeks.

It is as if the prolonged and widespread debate on the recently-introduced religious hatred legislation had never happened, said Sanderson. Dr Williams takes us right back to the beginning with his special pleading for the protection of religious feelings – in other words, another form of blasphemy law that would be even worse than the one we’re about to ditch.

Sanderson pointed out that the Racial and Religious Hatred Act – which had been under consideration for five years - was now on the statute book. It was enacted only after a great deal of bitter dispute between religious interests and those who feared for free speech.

There is also now in law a concept of religious aggravation that can be applied to some public order offences. It carries a potential prison sentence of seven years. This is draconian and extreme by any measure – and now the Archbishop appears to want something else.

Sanderson said that the Archbishop appeared in his speech to be making excuses for those who rioted about the Salman Rushdie case and threatened the author with death. He also seems to think that those who created lethal street protests over the Danish cartoons had a point. The Archbishop’s speech is, at base, self-serving and dangerously illiberal,” Mr Sanderson said. “We certainly hope that the Government is not now going to bring forward something even more extreme as a quid pro quo for abolishing blasphemy.

Comment: Interpretation

31st January 2008

From MediawatchWatch see full article

Owing to the Archbishop’s opaque style of discourse, it is unclear whether or not Times reporter Ruth Gledhill is correct in her interpretation of his James Callahan Memorial Lecture. Other reports, from more overtly religious sources, do not put the same spin on it.

This appears to be the section which has led the Times to shout that he is calling for new legislation. It’s not quite there, is it? Williams said:

"It is clear that the old blasphemy law is unworkable and that its assumptions are not those of contemporary lawmakers and citizens overall. But as we think about the adequacy of what is coming to replace it, we should not, I believe, miss the opportunity of asking the larger questions about what is just and good for individuals and groups in our society who hold religious beliefs".

Whichever way you look at it, he was talking drivel.

 

1st March
2008
  

Update: We Don't Believe in Blasphemy...BUT...

Bishops backtrack on abolishing the nonsense of blasphemy

Rowan Williams Senior Anglican bishops have warned the Government that they have serious reservations about the abolition of the blasphemy laws.

Dr Rowan Williams and Dr John Sentamu say in a letter today that the Government should not lightly change laws that, though their day-to-day importance may be small ...BUT... nevertheless carry a significant symbolic charge.

While not opposing abolition, they urge caution and question why the Government is pushing through the change now.

The abolition of blasphemy from the statute books moved closer this week with the tabling of a Government amendment in the House of Lords. The Bill is scheduled for debate on Wednesday.

The Government had promised in January that this would take place after a “short and sharp” consultation with the churches.

In a letter to Communities Secretary Hazel Blears, the Archbishops say that the pressing need for repeal is not clear and plead for more time to to assess the impact of the new offence of incitement to religious hatred.

They call on the Government to be clear why the offences are being abolished and to spell out what the implications are for Christianity in relation to State and society: At a time of continuing debate about the nature of our society and its values, this change needs to be seen for what it is, namely the removal of what has long been recognised as unsatisfactory and not very workable offences in circumstances in which scurrilous attacks on the Christian religion no longer threaten the fabric of society. It should not be capable of interpretation as a secularising move, or as a general licence to attack or insult religious beliefs and believers.

From the National Secular Society

NSS logo The Government amendment this week comes at a considerably earlier stage than had been expected as it is very unlikely that the consultation has been completed.

What appears to have happened is that the Government has been panicked into tabling its own amendment following a near identical one being tabled by Lord Avebury. Lord Avebury is a long-time secular campaigner.

The Government is determined that changes to blasphemy are made through their amendments, to give the appearance that they are in control.

See full article from Parliament

House of Lords logo A few of the Criminal Injustice Bill amendments knocking around

BARONESS ANDREWS

144B* Insert the following new Clause—
"Blasphemy and blasphemous libel
(1) The offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel under the common law of England and Wales are abolished.
(2) In section 1 of the Criminal Libel Act 1819 (60 Geo. 3 & 1 Geo. 4 c. 8) (orders for seizure of copies of blasphemous or seditious libel) the words "any blasphemous libel, or" are omitted.
(3) In sections 3 and 4 of the Law of Libel Amendment Act 1888 (c. 64) (privileged matters) the words "blasphemous or" are omitted.
(4) Subsections (2) and (3) (and the related repeals in Schedule 38) extend to England and Wales only."


EARL OF ONSLOW
BARONESS STERN

145 Insert the following new Clause—
"Blasphemy
The offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel are abolished."

LORD AVEBURY

148 Insert the following new Clause—
"Abolition of certain religious offences
(1) The following offences are abolished—
(a) blasphemy and blasphemous libel;
(b) any distinct offence of disturbing a religious service or religious devotions;
(c) any religious offence of striking a person in a church or churchyard.
(2) The following provisions are repealed—
(a) in section 1 of the Criminal Libel Act 1819 (60 Geo. 3 & 1 Geo. 4 c. 8), the words "blasphemous libel, or";
(b) in sections 3 and 4 of the Law of Libel Amendment Act 1888 (c. 64), the words "blasphemous or";
(c) section 59 of the Cemeteries Clauses Act 1847 (c. 65);
(d) section 2 of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 (c. 32);
(e) section 36 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 (c. 100);
(f) section 7 of the Burial Laws Amendment Act 1880 (c. 41)."

 

7th March
2008
  

Update: Unbelievable...

The nonsense of blasphemy set for abolition after Lords vote

House of Lords logo After an acrimonious debate in which the bogeyman of secularism was repeatedly invoked, the House of Lords on Wednesday accepted the amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill that abolishes the common law of blasphemy and blasphemous libel.

The amendment had originally been introduced by Lib Dem MP Dr Evan Harris in the House of Commons, but the Government had persuaded him to withdraw it after promising to introduce its own amendment later in the Lords. This it has now done with something less than enthusiasm.

The Bishops in the House were divided, some saying that the abolition was unnecessary and undesirable and others saying that it was inevitable and that the Church should therefore concede. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, had agreed to the Government's amendment during a consultation, but expressed strong reservations about the timing of the move.

Prominent Christian activist Baroness O'Cathain launched a blistering attack on the amendment, with particular fury aimed at Evan Harris. Lady O'Cathain maintained that abolition of blasphemy would unleash a torrent of abuse towards Christians.

Lib Dem peer Lord Avebury pressurised the Government into keeping its word by tabling his own abolition amendment.

The Government had conducted a "short and sharp" consultation with the Church of England about the amendment, and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York both agreed not to oppose the abolition, although both questioned its timing.

Evan Harris said that this debate had been going on for 21 years, since the Law Commission had recommended abolition of the law, and for the Church it would never be the right time.
Lord Avebury also introduced other amendments to the Bill that would clear out some other ancient Church privileges, such as Section 2 of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act of 1860, under which Peter Tatchell was charged when he interrupted a sermon by the-then Archbishop of Canterbury in Canterbury Cathedral. Lord Avebury's amendments were rejected by the Government and opposed by the bishops.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society pointed out that although the UK blasphemy laws are in the course of abolition, there is growing pressure in the Islamic world to outlaw so-called "religious defamation", a kind of super blasphemy law. This pressure is being applied at the United Nations and its Human Rights Council. He commented: "If the United Nations Human Rights Council succumbs to the pressure from the Islamic countries to permit laws against religious defamation, it will be a major blow to freedom of expression, which underpins both democracy and civilisation itself. Nations who cherish freedom should wake up to the dangers of such moves, rather than sit idly by as they have done so far."

The following amendment was passed by 148 to 87:

BARONESS ANDREWS

144B* Insert the following new Clause—
"Blasphemy and blasphemous libel
(1) The offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel under the common law of England and Wales are abolished.
(2) In section 1 of the Criminal Libel Act 1819 (60 Geo. 3 & 1 Geo. 4 c. 8) (orders for seizure of copies of blasphemous or seditious libel) the words "any blasphemous libel, or" are omitted.
(3) In sections 3 and 4 of the Law of Libel Amendment Act 1888 (c. 64) (privileged matters) the words "blasphemous or" are omitted.
(4) Subsections (2) and (3) (and the related repeals in Schedule 38) extend to England and Wales only."

 

8th February
2009
  

Update: Just Reward...

Secularists of the Year: the movers behind the abolition of blasphemy

Secularists of teh YearThe National Secular Society's annual award for Secularist of the Year has been awarded jointly to Dr Evan Harris MP and Lord Avebury for their success in getting blasphemy laws abolished.

The prestigious prize was handed over by Professor Richard Dawkins at a glittering awards ceremony at the Imperial Hotel in central London on Saturday.

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society (NSS), said: The abolition of the blasphemy law in 2008 was a major coup for the NSS and a great victory for everyone who values free speech. The ancient laws had not been used successfully since the 1970s, but there were efforts by Christian evangelicals to revive them, and a case was being considered even as the law was abolished.

Sanderson said that Dr Evan Harris and Lord Avebury – both Lib Dems – had engineered a clever parliamentary pincer movement that resulted in the Government being forced into bringing forward its own amendment to abolish the law. Having elicited the promise from Ministers in the House of Commons that the law would be abolished, Lord Avebury, who has been campaigning against the blasphemy laws for decades, then brought forward his own amendment to ensure that the Government could not renege on its commitment.

 


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