Blasphemy law in the United Kingdom  

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This article describes the blasphemy law in the United Kingdom.

Contents

England & Wales

The common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished in 2008. See now the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006.

Before the common law era

The offence of blasphemy was originally part of canon law. In the 17th century, blasphemy was declared a common law offence by the Court of King's Bench, punishable by the common law courts.

Common law treatment

From the 16th century to the mid-19th century, blasphemy against Christianity (applies mainly to the Church of England [1] [2]]]) was held as an offence against common law. Blasphemy was also used as a legal instrument to persecute atheists, Unitarians, and others.

All blasphemies against God, including denying His being or providence, all contumelious reproaches of Jesus Christ, all profane scoffing at the Holy Scriptures, and exposing any part thereof to contempt or ridicule, were punishable by the temporal courts with fine, imprisonment, and corporal punishment. In 1656, the Quaker James Naylor suffered flogging, branding and the piercing of his tongue by a red-hot poker.

An Act of Edward VI (the Sacrament Act 1547) set a punishment of imprisonment for reviling the sacrament of the Last Supper. It was repealed by the First Statute of Repeal in 1553 and revived again in 1558.

In the 1676 case of Rex v Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice Sir Matthew Hale stated that "Such kinds of blasphemous words were not only an offence to God and religion, but a crime against the laws, State and Government, and therefore punishable in that Court.... Christianity is parcel of the laws of England and therefore to reproach the Christian religion is to speak in subversion of the law."

Those denying the Trinity were deprived of the benefit of the Act of Toleration, 1689. The Blasphemy Act 1698 enacted that if any person, educated in or having made profession of the Christian religion, should by writing, preaching, teaching or advised speaking, deny that the members of the Holy Trinity were God, or should assert that there is more than one god, or deny the Christian religion to be true, or the Holy Scriptures to be of divine authority, he should, upon the first offence, be rendered incapable of holding any office or place of trust, and for the second incapable of bringing any action, of being guardian or executor, or of taking a legacy or deed of gift, and should suffer three years imprisonment without bail.

In the 1729 case of Rex v. Woolston, the court declared that they would not suffer it to be debated whether to write against Christianity in general was not an offence punishable in the temporal courts at common law, but they did not intend to include disputes between learned men on particular controverted points. Woolston was imprisoned until his death in 1733.

It has been held that a person offending under the statute is also indictable at common law (Rex v. Carlile, 1819, where Mr Justice Best remarks, "In the age of toleration, when that statute passed, neither churchmen nor sectarians wished to protect in their infidelity those who disbelieved the Holy Scriptures"). An act of 1812-1813 excepts from these enactments persons denying as therein mentioned respecting the Holy Trinity, but otherwise the common and the statute law on the subject remain as stated.

In 1841 Edward Moxon was found guilty of the publication of a blasphemous libel (Percy Bysshe Shelley's Queen Mab), the prosecution having been instituted by Henry Hetherington, who had previously been condemned to four months imprisonment for a similar offence, and wished to test the law under which he was punished. In the case of Cowan v. Milbourn (1867) the defendant had broken his contract to let a lecture-room to the plaintiff, on discovering that the intended lectures were to maintain that the character of Christ is defective, and his teaching misleading, and that the Bible is no more inspired than any other book, and the court of exchequer held that the publication of such doctrine was blasphemy, and the contract therefore illegal. On that occasion the court reaffirmed the dictum of Chief Justice Hale, that Christianity is part of the laws of England.

The commissioners on criminal law (sixth report) remarked that although the law forbade all denial of the being and providence of God or the Christian religion, it is only when irreligion assumes the form of an insult to God and man that the interference of the criminal law took place. In England the last prominent 19th century prosecution for blasphemy was the case of R. v. Ramsey & Foote, 1883, 48 L.T. 739, when the editor, publisher and printer of The Freethinker were sentenced to imprisonment.

Profane cursing and swearing was made punishable by the Profane Oaths Act 1745, which directs the offender to be brought before a justice of the peace, and fined an amount that depended on his social rank. It was repealed by section 13 of the Criminal Law Act 1967.

20th and 21st centuries

Police court proceedings were taken in 1908 against Harry Boulter, a Hyde Park orator with links to the Rationalist movement. In June 1909 he was jailed for repeating the offence.

The last person in Britain to be sent to prison for blasphemy was John William Gott on 9 December 1921. He had three previous convictions for blasphemy when he was prosecuted for publishing two pamphlets entitled Rib Ticklers, or Questions for Parsons and God and Gott. In these pamphlets Gott satirised the biblical story of Jesus entering Jerusalem (Template:Bibleverse) comparing Jesus to a circus clown. He was sentenced to nine months' hard labour despite suffering from an incurable illness, and died shortly after he was released. The case became the subject of public outrage.

In February 1925, the Glasgow-based radical Guy Aldred was arrested in Hyde Park and charged with blasphemy and sedition.

In a 1949 speech Lord Denning placed the blasphemy laws in the past, saying that "...it was thought that a denial of Christianity was liable to shake the fabric of society, which was itself founded upon Christian religion. There is no such danger to society now and the offence of blasphemy is a dead letter".

However in 1977 the case Whitehouse v. Lemon (involving the periodical Gay News publishing James Kirkup's poem The Love that Dares to Speak its Name) demonstrated that the offence of Blasphemous libel, long thought to be dormant, was still in force.

During the House of Lords appeal Lord Scarman said that "I do not subscribe to the view that the common law offence of blasphemous libel serves no useful purpose in modern law. (...) The offence belongs to a group of criminal offences designed to safeguard the internal tranquillity of the kingdom."

Following that case, the Law Commission published a 1985 report on Criminal Law: Offences against Religious and Public Worship. A minority report sought to create a replacement offence such that citizens should not purportedly "insult or outrage the religious feelings of others".

The passage of the Human Rights Act 1998 requires the courts to interpret the law in a way that is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The offence of blasphemous libel is believed by some to be contrary to the freedom of speech provisions in the ECHR. However, just before the introduction of the HRA, a claim that the blasphemy law is inconsistent with article 10 of the ECHR (providing for freedom of expression) was rejected in the case of Wingrove v UK (1997).

British author Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses was seen by many Muslims to blaspheme against Islam, and Iranian clerical leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1989 calling for Rushdie's death (although strictly this was in response to Rushdie's claimed apostasy, not the novel's supposed blasphemy). Some British Muslims called for Rushdie to be tried under English law for blasphemy, but no charges were laid, as the English legal system recognises blasphemy only against the Church Of England. A UK House of Lords select committee stated that the law is narrower in scope and only protects the Christian beliefs as held by the Church of England. The Rushdie case stimulated debate on this topic, with some arguing the same protection should be extended to all religions, while others claimed the UK's ancient blasphemy laws were an anachronism and should be abolished. Despite much discussion surrounding the controversy, the law was not amended.

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. Outraged 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 Tatchell.

On 15 May 2002 the House of Lords appointed a Select Committee “to consider and report on the law relating to religious offences”. The Committee's first report was published in April 2003; it summarised the state of the law in this area, and found that the present law on blasphemy was unlikely to result in successful prosecution. The Committee found no consensus on whether a new law against blasphemy was required, but concluded that if there was a law it should apply to all faiths. Home Secretary David Blunkett responded with plans to criminalise incitement to religious hatred, which became the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, and he suggested the blasphemy law might be repealed once the new law was in force.

When the BBC decided to broadcast Jerry Springer: The Opera in January 2005, they received over 63,000 complaints by offended Christian viewers who objected to the show's portrayal of Christian icons (including one scene depicting Jesus professing to be "a bit gay"). The fundamentalist group Christian Voice sought a private blasphemy prosecution against the BBC, but the charges were rejected by City of Westminster magistrates court. Christian Voice applied to have this ruling overturned by the High Court, but the application was rejected, the court finding that the common law blasphemy offences specifically did not apply to stage productions (s. 2(4) of the Theatres Act 1968) and broadcasts (s. 6 of the Broadcasting Act 1990).

Abolition

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.

In March 2008 Peers voted for the laws to be abandoned.

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.

Scotland

By the law of Scotland, as it originally stood, the punishment of blasphemy was death, a penalty last imposed on Thomas Aikenhead in Edinburgh in 1697. By an Act of 1825, amended in 1837, blasphemy was made punishable by fine or imprisonment or both. The last prosecution for blasphemy in Scotland was in 1843 when bookseller Thomas Paterson was sentenced at Edinburgh High Court to fifteen months in prison for selling blasphemous books.

According to the 18th-19th century legal writer David Hume (nephew of the philosopher), Scots law distinguished between blasphemy, which was uttered in passion generally in the heat of the moment, and other offences which involved the propagation of ideas contrary to religion. It is blasphemy, Hume wrote

when it is done in a scoffing and railing manner; out of a reproachful disposition in the speaker, and, as it were, with passion against the Almighty, rather than with any purpose of propagating the irreverent opinion. The like sentiments uttered dispassionately or conveyed in any calm or advised form, are rather a heresy or an apostasy than a proper blasphemy. — Commonwealth v. Kneeland

The Human Rights Act 1998 applies in Scotland as well as England and Wales, and therefore poses similar challenges to the existing Scottish blasphemy laws as those described above. Additionally, some legal commentators believe that, owing to the long time since successful prosecution, blasphemy in Scotland is no longer a crime, although blasphemous conduct might still be tried as a breach of the peace.

The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service considered a complaint under the blasphemy law regarding the BBC transmission of Jerry Springer: The Opera but did not proceed with charges.

Bibliography

See also



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