URGENT ACTION! Help to abolish blasphemy!
This week, on Wednesday 9th January, an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill will be proposed by Dr Evan Harris MP (honorary associate of the NSS) to abolish the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel.
We’re affiliated to the The British Humanist Association (BHA) and The National Secular Society (NSS), who’ve campaigned for the blasphemy laws to be abolished and have briefed MPs about the present amendment, as well as representing the case for abolition to Government.
Contact your MP NOW!
The BHA says there are a number of compelling reasons to abolish the blasphemy laws:
- The blasphemy law is contrary to the principle of free speech and is probably contrary to human rights laws adopted by the UK, which protect freedom of expression. The law fundamentally protects certain, Christian, beliefs and makes it illegal to question them or deny them.
- There is considerable evidence that the blasphemy law restricts free speech even in the absence of recent prosecutions. It undoubtedly influences the behaviour not only of individuals and the media, but also of bodies exercising official functions.
- The blasphemy law protects beliefs, not people. It is right, subject to safeguards, for society through its laws to protect individuals and groups within it from hatred and attack. It is quite wrong to extend the protection of the law to propositions, creeds and truth-claims.
- In a free society we must be allowed to criticise religious doctrines and practices, even if that offends some people. While it may be offensive to some Christian believers to hear their beliefs mocked or denied that is equally true of people of other faiths, and of unbelievers, who repeatedly hear atheism equated with a lack of values or immorality. In an open and pluralist society there should be no inhibition to free speech without the very strongest justification, and robust debate should be expected and accepted in religious as in political and other spheres.
- The blasphemy law is uncertain. As common law, with a very limited number of cases, it is impossible to predict how the courts might interpret the law in any putative case. This is contrary to the principles of good law, and unacceptable in practice.
- The blasphemy law lacks credibility. Although no one has been imprisoned for blasphemy since 1921, and private prosecutions are no longer possible, the possibility of a prison sentence remains, and a law that is only enforced at intervals of many years is an indefensible lottery.
- The blasphemy law allows no defence of merit or lack of intent, which is contrary to the principles adopted in other areas, for example, obscenity.
- The blasphemy law defends only Christianity (and principally the doctrines of the Church of England), which is unacceptable in a society characterised by its diversity of beliefs. Such unequal treatment naturally arouses resentment and demands for the privilege to be extended to other groups.
- Rather than extend the blasphemy laws to other religious beliefs, which in practice would constitutes the severest restriction on discussion of fundamental matters of profound significance and interest, the most fair and most equal and equal solution would be to abolish the laws.
The NSS says:
We have been working closely with our Honorary Associate Dr Evan Harris MP, who has identified an opportunity to challenge the blasphemy law in the House of Commons.
On Wednesday, 9 January, Dr Harris will table as an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. Below is a letter we have been working on with him which will appear in the Daily Telegraph signed by a large number of other Honorary Associates and prominent supporters of the NSS as well as some other worthy names from a religious and other spheres.
The letter itself makes the case forcibly:
“In the light of the widespread outrage at the conviction of the British teacher for blasphemy in Sudan over the name of a teddy bear we believe it is now time to repeal our own blasphemy law.
“The ancient common law of blasphemous libel purports to protect beliefs rather than people or communities. Most religious commentators are of the view that the Almighty does not need the “protection” of such a law. We are representatives of religious, secular, legal and artistic opinion in this country and share the view that the blasphemy offence serves no useful purpose. Yet it allows small partisan organisations or well-funded individuals to try to censor broadcasters like the BBC and to intimidate small theatres, the printed media and book publishers.
“Far from protecting public order — for which other laws are more suited — it actually damages social cohesion. It is discriminatory in that it only covers attacks on Christianity and Church of England tenets and thus engenders an expectation among other religions that their sensibilities should be also protected by the criminal law (as with the attempt to charge Salman Rushdie) and a sense of grievance among minority religions that they do not benefit from their own version of such a law.
“As the Law Commission acknowledged as far back as 1985, when they recommended repeal, it is uncertain in scope, lack of intention is no defence and yet it is unlimited in penalty. This, together with its chilling effect on free expression and its discriminatory impact, leaves it in clear breach of human rights law and in the end no one is ever likely to be convicted under it.
“The Church of England no longer opposes its abolition and the Government has given no principled reason to defend its retention. We call upon MPs to support the amendment proposed by Dr Evan Harris, Frank Dobson and John Gummer (tbc) tomorrow during the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill Report stage proceedings and for the Government — which rightly criticises countries like Sudan for their blasphemy laws — to give it a fair wind.”
If you support the abolition of blasphemy laws, we urge you please to write immediately to your MP, preferably by email, explaining you would like them to support Dr Harris’s amendment on Wednesday and add in your own words why you think this is important. You could perhaps use some of the ideas in the above letter, but please do not reproduce them all.
It is best if you can to contact your MP by email – you can find out details if you don’t know them from this website: http://www.theyworkforyou.com/mp/. This allows you to write to the correct MP by putting in your postcode. Whatever method you use to contact your MP, it is essential to include your name and full address.
If for any reason you would prefer to write by letter, you can send it by fax by phoning 020 7219 3000 and asking for the MPs office and requesting a fax number. Alternatively you could write to them at House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA, but in view of the urgency we would urge you to use email or fax if possible.
The NSS has been fighting for the abolition of blasphemy for the whole of its 140 year history. We have been working with Dr Harris on this important issue for some weeks including over the seasonal break assisting with research and soliciting the support of many influential individuals. We know you will want to add your support.