Friday, January 11, 2008

Is nothing sacred? Repealing the blasphemy law

For the sake of free speech, the British government must hold to its promise of repealing the blasphemy law
reposted from:
Chris Street comments are in bright green;
highlights in yellow blockquotes.

Jonathan Heawood

Having survived centuries of increasing redundancy, the common law offence of blasphemous libel seems finally about to be removed from British law. The government was forced on Wednesday night into promising a review of this arcane offence, in order to stave off an embarrassing backbench revolt.

If the government holds its course - and the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive, with even the Church of England giving cautious assent - then an amendment will be pegged on to the criminal justice bill currently making its way through parliament, and by the end of the year British citizens will be free to engage in "irreverent or impious acts".

The crime of blasphemous libel was established towards the end of the 17th century, when an offence against religion was perceived as an offence against the state.

In 1676 Lord Hale ruled that "Christianity is a parcel of the laws of England and therefore to reproach the Christian religion is to speak in subversion of the law".

The last-but-one blasphemy case was in 1922, when a John William Gott was charged with distributing a publication called Rib Ticklers for Parsons, which related that Jesus entered Jerusalem "like a circus clown on the back of two donkeys". This was thought sufficient to risk a breach of the peace, and Gott(!) was jailed. By 1977, when Mary Whitehouse brought a private prosecution against Gay News, the judiciary was divided, and Judge King-Hamilton suggested the alternative of a law which, in this "multi-religion state", afforded all religions similar protection.

Thirty years later, we have such a law in the Racial and Religious Hatred Act. It remains to be seen whether this is sufficient to satisfy those such as Stephen Green, who has sought unsuccessfully to prosecute the producers of Jerry Springer the Opera for blasphemous libel - probably not, as the new law includes the so-called "PEN Amendment", which protects our right to indulge in free speech on the subject of religion, so long as we do not intend thereby to stir up hatred against religious believers.

Last year, English PEN, Index on Censorship and Article 19 urged Gordon Brown to repeal the law of blasphemous libel, arguing his stated commitment to open government must include the fundamental right to freedom of expression.

While UK law continues to protect the sensitivities of the Christian God we cannot preach about human rights to the governments of Sudan or Pakistan. The law is there to protect believers and all of us from violence and discrimination, but it cannot and should not protect beliefs against the rough-and-tumble of democracy.

I hope that Gordon Brown holds to Wednesday night's promise, and rids us once and for all of this pestilential priest-placator.

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