- Blasphemy law in the United Kingdom
This article describes the blasphemy law in the United Kingdom.
England & Wales
The common law offences of
blasphemyand blasphemous libelwere abolished in 2008. See now the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006.
Before the common law era
The offence of
blasphemywas originally part of canon law. In the 17th century, blasphemy was declared a common lawoffence by the Court of King's Bench, punishable by the common law courts.
Common law treatment
From the 16th century to the mid-19th century, blasphemy against
Christianitywas held as an offence against common law. Blasphemy was also used as a legal instrument to persecute atheists, Unitarians, and others.
All blasphemies against
God, including denying his/her/their being or providence, all contumelious reproaches of Jesus Christ, all profane scoffing at the Holy Scriptures, and exposing any part thereof to contempt or ridicule, were punishable by the temporal courts with fine, imprisonment, and corporal punishment. In 1656, the Quaker James Naylorsuffered flogging, branding and the piercing of his tongue by a red-hot poker.
An Act of Edward VI (the
Sacrament Act 1547) set a punishment of imprisonment for reviling the sacrament of the Last Supper. It was repealed by the First Statute of Repealin 1553 and revived again in 1558.
In the 1676 case of "Rex v Taylor", the
Lord Chief Justice Sir Matthew Halestated that "Such kinds of blasphemous words were not only an offence to God and religion, but a crime against the laws, State and Government, and therefore punishable in that Court.... Christianity is parcel of the laws of England and therefore to reproach the Christian religion is to speak in subversion of the law."
Those denying the
Trinitywere deprived of the benefit of the Act of Toleration, 1689. The Blasphemy Act 1698enacted that if any person, educated in or having made profession of the Christian religion, should by writing, preaching, teaching or advised speaking, deny that the members of the Holy Trinitywere God, or should assert that there is more than one god, or deny the Christian religion to be true, or the Holy Scriptures to be of divine authority, he should, upon the first offence, be rendered incapable of holding any office or place of trust, and for the second incapable of bringing any action, of being guardian or executor, or of taking a legacy or deed of gift, and should suffer three years imprisonment without bail.
In the 1729 case of "Rex v. Woolston", the court declared that they would not suffer it to be debated whether to write against Christianity in general was not an offence punishable in the temporal courts at common law, but they did not intend to include disputes between learned men on particular controverted points. Woolston was imprisoned until his death in 1733.
It has been held that a person offending under the statute is also indictable at common law ("Rex v. Carlile", 1819, where Mr Justice Best remarks, "In the age of toleration, when that statute passed, neither churchmen nor sectarians wished to protect in their infidelity those who disbelieved the Holy Scriptures"). An act of 1812-1813 excepts from these enactments persons denying as therein mentioned respecting the Holy Trinity, but otherwise the common and the statute law on the subject remain as stated.
Edward Moxonwas found guilty of the publication of a blasphemous libel( Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Queen Mab"), the prosecution having been instituted by Henry Hetherington, who had previously been condemned to four months imprisonment for a similar offence, and wished to test the law under which he was punished. In the case of "Cowan v. Milbourn" (1867) the defendant had broken his contract to let a lecture-room to the plaintiff, on discovering that the intended lectures were to maintain that the character of Christ is defective, and his teaching misleading, and that the Bible is no more inspired than any other book, and the court of exchequer held that the publication of such doctrine was blasphemy, and the contract therefore illegal. On that occasion the court reaffirmed the dictum of Chief Justice Hale, that Christianity is part of the laws of England.
The commissioners on criminal law (sixth report) remarked that although the law forbade all denial of the being and providence of God or the Christian religion, it is only when irreligion assumes the form of an insult to God and man that the interference of the criminal law took place. In England the last prominent 19th century prosecution for blasphemy was the case of "R. v. Ramsey & Foote", 1883, 48 L.T. 739, when the editor, publisher and printer of "The Freethinker" were sentenced to imprisonment.
Profane cursing and swearing was made punishable by the
Profane Oaths Act 1745, which directs the offender to be brought before a justice of the peace, and fined an amount that depended on his social rank. It was repealed by section 13 of the Criminal Law Act 1967.
20th and 21st centuries
*Police court proceedings were taken in 1908 against
Harry Boulter, a Hyde Park orator with links to the Rationalistmovement. In June 1909 he was jailed for repeating the offence.
*The last person in Britain to be sent to prison for blasphemy was
John William Gotton 9 December 1921. He had three previous convictions for blasphemy when he was prosecuted for publishing two pamphlets entitled "Rib Ticklers, or Questions for Parsons" and "God and Gott". In these pamphlets Gott satirised the biblical story of Jesus entering Jerusalem (] During the House of Lords appeal Lord Scarmansaid that "I do not subscribe to the view that the common law offence of blasphemous libel serves no useful purpose in modern law. (...) The offence belongs to a group of criminal offences designed to safeguard the internal tranquillity of the kingdom."
* Following that case, the
Law Commissionpublished a 1985 report on "Criminal Law: Offences against Religious and Public Worship". A minority report sought to create a replacement offence such that citizens should not purportedly "insult or outrage the religious feelings of others".
* The passage of the
Human Rights Act 1998requires the courts to interpret the law in a way that is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The offence of blasphemous libel is believed by some to be contrary to the freedom of speech provisions in the ECHR. However, just before the introduction of the HRA, a claim that the blasphemy law is inconsistent with article 10 of the ECHR (providing for freedom of expression) was rejected in the case of "Wingrove v UK" (1997).
* British author
Salman Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses" was seen by many Muslims to blaspheme against Islam, and Iranian clerical leader Ayatollah Khomeiniissued a fatwain 1989 calling for Rushdie's death (although strictly this was in response to Rushdie's claimed apostasy, not the novel's supposed blasphemy). Some British Muslims called for Rushdie to be tried under English lawfor blasphemy, but no charges were laid, as the English legal system recognises blasphemy only against the Church Of England. A UK House of Lords select committee stated that the law is narrower in scope and only protects the Christian beliefs as held by the Church of England. [cite web
title =First Report Blasphemy
work =Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales
publisher =United Kingdom Parliament Publications and Records
accessdate =2007-12-05 ] The Rushdie case stimulated debate on this topic, with some arguing the same protection should be extended to all religions, while others claimed the UK's ancient blasphemy laws were an anachronism and should be abolished. Despite much discussion surrounding the controversy, the law was not amended.
* In 2002, a deliberate and well-publicised public, repeat reading of the poem "
The Love that Dares to Speak its Name" by James Kirkuptook place on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fieldschurch in Trafalgar Squareand failed to lead to any prosecution by the Director of Public Prosecutions. It suggested Jesus was gay. An earlier reading in 1977 had led to prosecution. Outraged Christians tried to drown out the 2002 reading. “We have won an important victory for free speech and the right to protest”, declared human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. “No one was arrested. The police didn’t even take our names and addresses. The blasphemy law is now a dead letter. If the authorities are not prepared to enforce the law, they should abolish it”. A trial would have involved all those who read and published the poem, including several of Britain’s leading writers, academics and MPs. “The blasphemy law gives the Christian religion privileged protection against criticism and dissent. No other institution enjoys such sweeping powers to suppress the expression of opinions and ideas”, said Tatchell.
* On 15 May 2002 the
House of Lordsappointed a Select Committee “to consider and report on the law relating to religious offences”. The Committee's first report was published in April 2003; it summarised the state of the law in this area, and found that the present law on blasphemy was unlikely to result in successful prosecution. The Committee found no consensus on whether a new law against blasphemy was required, but concluded that if there was a law it should apply to all faiths. [cite web
title =Religious Offences Committee
publisher =United Kingdom Parliament Publications and Records
accessdate =2007-12-05 ]
Home Secretary David Blunkettresponded with plans to criminalise incitement to religious hatred, which became the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, and he suggested the blasphemy law might be repealed once the new law was in force. [cite web
title =Blasphemy laws set to be repealed
publisher =BBC News
accessdate =2007-12-05 ]
* When the
BBCdecided to broadcast in January 2005, they received over 63,000 complaints by offended Christian viewers who objected to the show's portrayal of Christian icons (including one scene depicting Jesus professing to be "a bit gay"). The fundamentalist group Christian Voice sought a private blasphemy prosecution against the BBC, but the charges were rejected by City of Westminstermagistrates court. Christian Voice applied to have this ruling overturned by the High Court, but the application was rejected, the court finding that the common lawblasphemy offences specifically did not apply to stage productions (s. 2(4) of the Theatres Act 1968) and broadcasts (s. 6 of the Broadcasting Act 1990) [cite news
title =Springer opera court fight fails
accessdate =2007-12-05 ] [cite BAILII
litigants=Green, R (on the application of) v The City of Westminster Magistrates' Court
* In January 2008, a spokesman for Prime Minister
Gordon Brownannounced that the Government would consider the abolition of the blasphemy laws during the passage of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill . The Government consulted with the Church of Englandand other churches before reaching a decision. The move followed a letter written to The Daily Telegraphat the instigation of MP Evan Harrisand the National Secular Societyand was signed by leading figures including Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who urged that the laws be abandoned.
* In March 2008 Peers voted for the laws to be abandoned.
* On May 8 2008, the
Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008abolished the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel in England and Wales, with effect from 8 July 2008. [cite web| accessdate = 2008-05-23|publisher=Ministry of Justice|title=Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 implementation|url =http://www.justice.gov.uk/publications/criminal-justice-act-implementation.htm] [cite web| accessdate = 2008-06-06|publisher=Institute for Humanist Studies|author=Ruth Geller|title=Goodbye to Blasphemy in Britain|url =http://humaniststudies.org/enews/?id=348&article=0]
By the law of Scotland, as it originally stood, the punishment of blasphemy was death, a penalty last imposed on
Thomas Aikenheadin Edinburgh in 1697. By an Act of 1825, amended in 1837, blasphemy was made punishable by fine or imprisonment or both. The last prosecution for blasphemy in Scotland was in 1843 when bookseller Thomas Paterson was sentenced at Edinburgh High Court to fifteen months in prison for selling blasphemous books.
According to the 18th-19th century legal writer David Hume (nephew of the philosopher), Scots law distinguished between blasphemy, which was uttered in passion generally in the heat of the moment, and other offences which involved the propagation of ideas contrary to religion. It is blasphemy, Hume wrote
when it is done in a scoffing and railing manner; out of a reproachful disposition in the speaker, and, as it were, with passion against the Almighty, rather than with any purpose of propagating the irreverent opinion. The like sentiments uttered dispassionately or conveyed in any calm or advised form, are rather a heresy or an apostasy than a proper blasphemy. — ""
Human Rights Act 1998applies in Scotland as well as England and Wales, and therefore poses similar challenges to the existing Scottish blasphemy laws as those described above. Additionally, some legal commentators believe that, owing to the long time since successful prosecution, blasphemy in Scotland is no longer a crime,Fact|date=December 2007 although blasphemous conduct might still be tried as a breach of the peace. [cite web
title =Discussion Paper 24 (1992) - Blasphemy
publisher =Law Reform Commission New South Wales
accessdate =2007-12-05 ]
Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Serviceconsidered a complaint under the blasphemy law regarding the BBC transmission of but did not proceed with charges. [cite web
title =Springer TV opera faces blasphemy complaint
accessdate =2007-12-05 ]
*Marsh, Joss (1998). "Word crimes: blasphemy, culture, and literature in nineteenth-century England".
University of ChicagoPress. ISBN 0-226-50691-6
*Walter, Nicolas (1990). "Blasphemy Ancient and Modern". London:
Rationalist Press Association. ISBN 0-301-90001-9
Religion in the United Kingdom
Status of religious freedom in the United Kingdom
* [http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/ld200203/ldselect/ldrelof/95/9501.htm Religious Offences in England and Wales - First Report]
** [http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/ld200203/ldselect/ldrelof/95/9515.htm Appendix 3 - Blasphemy]
* [http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/other/nswlrc/reports/74/R74CHP2.html New South Wales Law Reform Commission report on blasphemy] , contains a good discussion of the English law up to 1828 when NSW law split off from English law.
* [http://www.richardwebster.net/abriefhistoryofblasphemy.html "A Brief History of Blasphemy"] : text of 1990 book by Richard Webster.
*gutenberg|no=7076|name=Prisoner for Blasphemy. An account by
George William Footeof his experiences in the 1880s.
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