Britain's blasphemy law no longer sacred
After a teddy bear incident and much debate, the House of Lords votes
to abolish it.
By Kim Murphy
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
March 05, 2008
LONDON -- A funny thing happened in November when Britain launched a
righteous protest over Sudan's arrest of a British schoolteacher
accused of insulting Islam by letting her students name a class teddy
The Sudanese ambassador was summoned; Prime Minister Gordon Brown
issued a protest. But it didn't take long for someone to point out
that Downing Street was standing on diplomatic quicksand: Britain
itself has a law making blasphemy a crime.
Thus began a period of collective soul-searching on free speech and
secularism, traditional values and the church that anoints Britain's
queen. It culminated Wednesday in a 148-87 vote in the House of Lords
to abolish the laws on blasphemy after a wrenching, two-hour debate.
"It is crystal-clear that the offenses of blasphemy and blasphemous
libel are unworkable in today's society," Kay Andrews said in
introducing the government-backed amendment, adding that "as long as
this law remains on the statute books, it hinders the UK's ability to
challenge oppressive blasphemy laws in other jurisdictions."
But in a debate that underscored Britain's continuing strong roots in
the Church of England, there was substantial doubt about the wisdom of
abandoning what for many is a symbol of the increasingly multicultural
nation's reliance on Christian values as a foundation for law and
"The essential question is: Should we abolish Christian beliefs and
replace them with secular beliefs? As long as there has been a country
called England, it has been a Christian country, publicly
acknowledging the one true God," said Detta O'Cathain, a Conservative
member of the House of Lords.
"Noble lords may cry freedom, but I urge them to pause and consider
that the freedom we have today was nurtured by Christian principles,
and continues to be guided by them," she said.
Most remaining blasphemy laws in Western democracies are either little
used or, like Britain's, on their way out. This week, the
Massachusetts Legislature began consideration of a bill to phase out
that state's blasphemy proscription, along with other outdated "blue
Wednesday's vote in the upper house of Parliament was an amendment to
a broad proposed law on criminal justice that must still go back to
the House of Commons for approval before taking effect. Still, the
vote was seen as a crucial hurdle in a process that is now all but
"The law on blasphemy will be abolished. And good riddance, is what we
say," Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said
in an interview. "It's an unusable law, as it stands at the moment,
and in the past it's been a very cruel law."
In fact, Parliament has never passed a blasphemy law. It is a common-
law crime established centuries ago and clarified by judges in the
19th century to protect the beliefs of the Church of England; citizens
may fall afoul if they insult God, Christ, the Christian religion or
the Bible in a way that is scurrilous, abusive or offensive, or in a
manner that may breach the peace.
Attacks on other religions are not covered, prompting many critics to
brand the law as discriminatory.
In practice, the law has seldom been used, and in 2006 a new law
making it a crime to incite religious hatred was adopted as a more
equitable alternative. The last time anyone was imprisoned for
blasphemy was in 1922, when a man was convicted after comparing Jesus
Christ to a circus clown.
The last successful blasphemy prosecution occurred as a result of a
private complaint in 1977 against a gay newspaper for publishing a
poem that describes a Roman centurion's homosexual lovemaking with
Christ's dead body, and legal analysts say it is doubtful any new
prosecution could survive under European human rights laws.
Just this week, a Christian activist organization, Christian Voice,
lost its appeal under the blasphemy laws of a challenge to the musical
" Jerry Springer: The Opera."
"Far from being abolished, the laws against blasphemy should be
strengthened to remove the loopholes the courts have created,"
Christian Voice's national director, Stephen Green, said in an
interview. "This is all part of a move by the atheists to turn us into
a secular state."
The case of the teacher in Sudan, Gillian Gibbons, ended with a pardon
and release after eight days in custody, negotiated in part by Muslim
members of the British Parliament. Gibbons said in a statement that
she had "great respect for the Muslim religion" and had intended no
offense when she allowed her students to choose a name for the bear,
but protesters in Sudan continued to call for punishing her.
The Church of England has cautiously elected not to oppose abolishing
the British law, though senior clerics have emphasized that any change
in the law should not be seen as a move toward secularism.
Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times
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