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New attempt to end blasphemy law

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parliamentLiberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris will tomorrow table an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill calling for the abolition of 'blasphemous libel'. Here, Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society explains why such a crime has no place in a liberal society

Religion in Britain was, until relatively recently, sinking quietly into oblivion. It was suffering a lingering death brought on by utter indifference.

But now, suddenly, it is on the front page of the newspapers just about every day of the week. It often leads on the news and its ubiquity is beginning to alert even the most news-averse citizen that something extraordinary, and quite alarming, is going on.

One of the aspects of the religious revival that seems to anger people most is the desire by religious bodies to restrict freedom to examine, criticise and mock their beliefs. Proposed restrictions on 'incitement to religious hatred' and 'defamation of religion' are suddenly pre-occupying legislators in parliaments around the globe, in the United Nations and the Council of Europe. We don't need to go over again the many cases that have sparked this frenzy of demands for censorship, from Salman Rushdie to Jerry Springer The Opera, from Bezhti to the Mohammed cartoons.

All of them spring from a very ancient concept: blasphemy. The idea that there should be a penalty for speaking or writing irreverently, disrespectfully or insultingly about a religion and its gods is as old as religion itself. Of course, the idea of blasphemy is a complete affront to the modern liberal, but the law that enforces it remains in place in Britain.

Now there is to be a new attempt to get rid of it. Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris will propose an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill on Wednesday 9 January, seeking to rid our legal system of this anachronism once and for all. As 'blasphemous libel' is a crime, the amendment can be submitted to a bill concerning criminal justice.

Those of us involved in agitating for this amendment know it follows many other brave attempts to achieve the same end. I have a personal interest in that some of my predecessors in the freethought movement were sent to jail with hard labour for extended periods after their (by modern standards, rather feeble) satires offended the pious.

One day, of course, the government and the Church will accept that blasphemy has had its day, is unusable (because of its incompatibility with the Human Rights Act) and discriminatory, given that it only protects the 'tenets and beliefs of the Church of England'. Maybe that day has come.

When David Blunkett was Home Secretary and fighting to introduce legislation to outlaw 'religious hatred', he made a vague promise that if such a law were to be accepted, then the blasphemy law would go as a quid pro quo. Well, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act is now on the statute book, but the blasphemy law remains stubbornly in force.

The crime of blasphemy and blasphemous libel has existed in England and Wales for more than 300 years as a common law offence (that is, a crime that has not been defined by parliament and does not appear on the statute book, but was invented and developed by judges. Indeed, blasphemy is one of the very few remaining judge-made laws, which explains why so many ambiguities surround it). At the last successful trial for blasphemy the judge said blasphemous libel was committed 'if a publication about God, Christ, the Christian religion or the Bible used words which were scurrilous, abusive or offensive, which vilified Christianity and might lead to a breach of the peace'. The judges can, of course, decide the punishment, and it is without limit.

Following the notorious Gay News trial in 1977, the Law Commission made two recommendations in the 1980s that the law of blasphemy should be abolished, but both came to nothing. Lord Scarman even argued that in order to make it compliant with human rights law, it should be extended to cover all religions. Subsequent events have shown what a disaster that would have been.

Recent incidents in Pakistan and Sudan have been perfect examples of the way blasphemy law can be misused. We have seen Christians and atheists in Pakistan being put on death row after show trials when they were accused of blasphemy. We have seen other victims being summarily executed by prison guards or lynched by mobs who apparently don't need to wait for a trial — for them an accusation is sufficient. The law is used ruthlessly to settle disputes between neighbours and to rid the authorities of inconvenient critics. It is the despot's best friend.

In Sudan, the teddy bear fiasco made headlines around the world. But there are others who have been accused of blasphemy and imprisoned since Gillian Gibbons, and their cases will not be rewarded with the same happy ending.

The existence of a blasphemy law in Britain makes it difficult for the British authorities to argue against it elsewhere. What hypocrites we seem when we rail against the injustice of it in the Islamic world, while clinging to it for some reason ourselves.

It is because blasphemy accusations are being used to persecute Christians in Islamic countries such as Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, that bishops of the Church of England are realising that it cannot remain extant here. And so former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey and former Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries joined other worthies to sign a letter to the Daily Telegraph calling for the government to support Evan Harris's amendment. It is thought others will follow.

As the recent attempt by Stephen Green to bring a blasphemy prosecution against the BBC (over its screening of Jerry Springer The Opera) illustrates, blasphemy is a dead letter in this country. But its continued presence in our legal system causes affront and inconvenience to many people.



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