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

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
One 200ml bottle of codeine linctus contains three times the equivalent level of morphine you'd get in casualty if you broke your wrist  

The ‘war on drugs’ consistently ignores its greatest enemy: over-the-counter painkillers

Janet Street-Porter
The author contemplating what could have been  

I was a timid, kind, gentle-natured child, later to be spurned and humiliated – in short, the perfect terrorist-in-waiting

Howard Jacobson
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable