Friday, January 11, 2008

is the blasphemy law about to breathe its last?

After 300 years of persecution and injustice, is the blasphemy law about to breathe its last?

reposted from:
Chris Street comments are in bright green;
highlights in yellow blockquotes.

The 140-year battle that the NSS has waged against the blasphemy law in England is on the brink of being won. On Wednesday, our honorary associate Dr Evan Harris MP, tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, calling for an end to the blasphemy law.

At first the Government were unsympathetic, and early reports on the BBC indicated that they had “no intention” of scrapping the antiquated law. But it soon became apparent that a large number of Labour back benchers didn’t agree with the official line and intended to support Evan’s amendment.

A flurry of behind the scenes activity then resulted in a compromise. If Evan would withdraw his own amendment, the Government would bring forward its own amendment to do the job, in the House of Lords. The only caveat was that “the Churches”, particularly the Church of England, would have to be consulted first, to make sure it was OK with them.

The Government minister, Maria Eagle, promised that the consultation with the Church would be “short and sharp”. But the Church of England is not yet acknowledging that abolition is inevitable, urging “caution" in proceeding. "We are open to the possibility of a review," said a spokesperson, but that’s all.

Although the CofE has indicated in other debates that the law is an anachronism and are not averse to it going, they may change their tune now the possibility is imminent. They may decide to use it as a bargaining tool to beef up (that is, illiberalise) the Racial and Religious Hatred Act. Some religious people are arguing that abolition of blasphemy would be the first step to disestablishment, and that may push the Church into resisting. However, one correspondent to the Times asked: “Why is it necessary to consult the Anglican Church? Are we going to start consulting burglars on the breaking and entering laws?”

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “It would be scandalous if the churches were permitted to scupper this. But I think the Government recognises that if they don’t bring an amendment in the Lords, someone else will and they will again be faced with a rebellion from their own troops.
I don’t think they would want that, given the sinking poll ratings of Gordon Brown.”

The NSS has been pivotal in assisting Evan Harris in his efforts. We played a leading role in helping him gather an impressive roster of names that appeared in a letter to the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday. Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood was feeding Evan Harris a continuous supply of background material and he was on hand in parliament all of Wednesday to offer support to the MP.

The NSS is profoundly grateful to Evan for this spirited attempt to put right a centuries old injustice and to our members who responded to the call to lobby their MPs at rather short notice.

We must also thank Stephen Green of Christian Voice who attempted to prosecute the BBC for blasphemy and failed in the High Court last month. His efforts gave much topicality and raw material to the debate. Mr Green is good enough to concede, in a press release, that it was the NSS that did it.
You can read the debate here
A report of events here
See also: Christian group wants “blasphemous statue” destroyed
Gay news website reproduces “blasphemous” poem

11 January 2008

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