MP aims to strike down blasphemy laws

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

A Liberal Democrat MP has attached an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill that would abolish the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel.

Dr Evan Harris’ proposal is backed by 27 MPs will be debated today. It is supported by civil rights groups, Humanists and some Christian organisations.

Last year Christian Voice, an evangelical group notorious for their vocal opposition to gay equality, attempted to bring a private prosecution for blasphemy against the director general of the BBC after Jerry Springer: The Opera was screened.

Lord Justice Hughes pointed out that in the two years the play was performed in London “there had been no violence or even demonstrations.

“As a whole was not and could not reasonably be regarded as aimed at, or an attack on, Christianity or what Christians held sacred.”

The case highlighted the continued existence of blasphemy offences that protect Christian beliefs and disproved arguments from their supporters that the laws are not used.

Dr Harris’ attempt to remove blashphemy from the statute books has support from some religious groups.

Simon Barrow, co-director of Christian think tank Ekklesia, commented:

“Privileging one religion above other views is indefensible in a democracy, and for Christians there is the added irony that Christ was himself arraigned on a charge of blasphemy.

“Using the law to attack opinions about belief is to misuse it, and suggesting that God needs protection against free speech makes no theological sense at all.

“The Christian message is about the power of self-giving love, not the love of one’s own power. This is why it is wrong religiously as well as legally and democratically.”

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey has also spoken out against blasphemy laws.

Hanne Stinson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, said:

“The abolition of the outdated blasphemy laws is long overdue. Those laws are supported neither by the public nor by the courts, as evidenced by the recent refusal by the High Court to allow a blasphemy case against the BBC director general to go ahead.

“The blasphemy laws in the UK, which protect only Anglican beliefs in any case, are clearly contrary to the principle of free speech, are probably contrary to human rights laws which protect freedom of expression, and are totally out-of-place in the context of our increasingly diverse and increasingly non-religious society.”

Civil rights group Liberty said that blasphemy laws may violate Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights which protects free speech.

In 1977 newspaper Gay News and its editor were found guilty of blasphemous libel.

The case, the first of its kind in 50 years, was a private prosecution brought by “morality” campaigner Mary Whitehouse.

In 1976 Gay News published a poem and illustration concerning a gay Roman soldier’s love for Christ at the Crucifixion.

The paper was unsuccessfully defended by author and QC John Mortimer.

Editor Denis Lemon received a nine-month suspended jail sentence and a £500 fine.

Gay News was fined £1,000 and a further £9,000 in court costs.

An appeal in 1978 was rejected by the Law Lords.