Leading article: An anachronistic offence

Share
Related Topics

There is a sense in which the debate about whether to repeal the blasphemy laws or not feels too anachronistic to be taken seriously. These statutes stem from a time when the Anglican Church still enjoyed real power in the land. They bear as much relevance to modern British life as laws forbidding MPs from wearing armour in Parliament.

In any case, the laws are inactive. No one has been imprisoned for blasphemy since 1922. The legal community generally accepts the judgment of Lord Denning in 1949 that the blasphemy laws have become a "dead letter". Even the Church of England is not particularly interested in defending them. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, signed a letter this week calling for their abolition.

Yet there is another sense in which the issue of blasphemy is strikingly contemporary. The recent case of Gillian Gibbons, the British schoolteacher threatened with imprisonment and lashes in Sudan for naming a teddy bear Mohamed, and the row over offensive Danish newspaper cartoons of the prophet has thrust the concept of insulting religion back into the public consciousness. The issue has also become mingled with the question of how best to protect Britain's growing number of religious minorities. Would removing laws designed to protect Christianity make it open season on insulting all religions, as some fear?

The case for scrapping the law, debated by MPs yesterday, is still overpowering. The laws may be a dead letter, but the threat of prosecution can still be used by zealous groups to harass. A Christian evangelical organisation tried to prosecute the BBC director general over the screening of Jerry Springer – the Opera. The High Court rejected their case last month, but it still wasted BBC resources. Scrapping the laws would at least mean the end of such foolish prosecution attempts.

But what about vulnerable religious minorities? Should they receive no protection against gratuitous verbal attacks? This is not a clear-cut area. A civilised society needs certain, minimal, restrictions on free speech. It is right, for instance, that the law attempts to protect people from those who incite racial hatred against them. But there is a major problem with banning "incitement to religious hatred", the Government's misguided attempt two years ago to update the blasphemy laws and apply them to all faiths. This legislation, before it was defanged by a Commons rebellion, would have protected ideas, rather than people. As such it was an unwarranted restriction on freedom of expression.

The Government should certainly get rid of blasphemy laws, as Downing Street yesterday suggested it is minded to do, but it should also forget about trying to update them for a modern multi-faith age. The offence of blasphemy should be a topic of interest to historians, not lawyers.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

 

In Sickness and in Health: 'I'm really happy to be alive and to see Rebecca'

Rebecca Armstrong
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine