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Lords Approve Abolition Of Blasphemy

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After an acrimonious debate in which the bogeyman of secularism was repeatedly invoked, the House of Lords on Wednesday March 5 2008 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, although — if Baroness Andrews' speech was anything to go by — 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. He 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. These further amendments were rejected by the Government and opposed by the bishops.

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.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society attended the debate and welcomed the Lords' decision. He said: "The National Secular Society has been campaigning to abolish the blasphemy laws for 140 years. The laws have an iniquitous history of persecution, and because it is a common law offence with no limit on punishment, it has resulted in executions and imprisonments with hard labour for people who wrote and said things that would, in the modern day, be considered trivial. It is disgraceful that such a relic of religious savagery has survived into the 21st century."

Mr Porteous Wood 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. 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."

Some quotes from the debate in the House of Lords mentioning Richard Dawkins:

Lord Elystan-Morgan [seemingly a Christian judge]: I support the amendment, although in so doing I respect greatly the deep sincerity and total commitment with which the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, spoke. It is not a question of seeking to remove something from statute that has any real significance or life at the moment. If I felt that it had, I may well have taken a different approach. It is a part of the law that has essentially fallen into desuetude. It begs the question, therefore, whether one should allow it to clutter the statute book and the concept of our common law. If I am wrong, and it is still a live and relevant law, one has to look very carefully at the situation. There are many old laws that never end in prosecution because the practices that they condemn do not occur, or occur perhaps only once every half-century. That is not the situation here. I have read within the past few weeks The God Delusion by Professor Dawkins. I ask noble Lords to listen to the following passage. The author speaks of the God that we as Christians worship and states that He is, "a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully". If that law counts for anything at all, it is clear that it will encompass a comment of that nature. I do not suggest for a moment that the learned professor, who is professor of philosophical studies at Oxford, should be prosecuted, but if one prosecuted people for expressions such as those, thousands of persons would be prosecuted year in, year out. I do not for, a second reason, believe that it is right for the law to remain as it is, and applaud the amendment for this reason: I can remember some 30 years ago some excellent programmes on television on a Sunday night, when various propositions of immense weight and substance were debated in a jury/courtroom format. I remember Lord Hailsham appearing on behalf of those who supported the existence of God. After a brilliant cross-examination and a splendid address to the jury, his party carried the day. I cannot remember who the acting judge was, but he asked Lord Hailsham, "Do you ask for costs?". Lord Hailsham, bouncing up and down like an electrified blancmange, as was his wont, said, "No, my Lord, my client does not require costs". May I suggest that the second and most profound reason here is that the good Lord does not require this defence? I do not know what my forebears, many of whom were non-conformist ministers, would say of that. Perhaps I shall have to meet them on the Day of Judgment, but I suggest that I will have far graver things to worry about on that particular occasion.

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Lord Elton: The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth is back in bouncing form on the Bishops' Bench, but could I persuade him that there is another path to take with honour and satisfaction? I was not going to take part until the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, rose and trailed the name of Dawkins and The God Delusion. I recommend that he reads a better and more recent book, The Dawkins Delusion?, which I am glad to see he has in his hand. The noble Lord's principal objection to the blasphemy law is that it does not work and is not used and that it is cluttering the statute book. I have yet to discover what harm is done by clutter on the statute book. It may incense people such as the noble and learned Lords, but it does not disturb most of us

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Lord Neill of Bladen: [complaining about the matter coming up as a late amendment, forced on the Government] The information is not and has not been properly before us. We have not had preparation time for this; there may be a mass of material that we could read, including earlier committee reports. My simple message is: let us not rush to judgment thinking that we are very wise today. There is no urgency about this at all. I have not detected any urgency. Even the learned Professor Dawkins does not say what a scandal these laws are or that they must be repealed immediately. I support earlier speakers on this.



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