Leading article: An anachronistic offence

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The Independent Online

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.