By Dan Katz
The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, is considering abolishing Britain’s absurd blasphemy laws when legislating for a new offence of incitement to religious hatred. By so doing Blunkett hopes to split those opposed to the new incitement law.
But Blunkett’ concession is relatively unimportant — any blasphemy prosecutions would probably now be overridden by EU law. Besides the new offence is in effect an extension of the old blasphemy law — it will be a new “all religions” blasphemy law.
Blasphemy prosecutions run foul of the European Convention on Human Rights Act because blasphemy only offers protection to the Church of England and thus discriminates against other religions. That contravenes the European Convention.
In any case there have been no public prosecutions for blasphemy since 1922, when John William Gott was sentenced to nine months’ hard labour for comparing Jesus with a circus clown.
The only successful private prosecution under the law since then was that brought by Mary Whitehouse in 1977 against Gay News, over a poem it printed depicting Christ as a promiscuous gay man. During the trial the judge defined blasphemous libel as depiction of God, Christ, the Christian religion or the Bible using words which were “scurrilous, abusive or offensive, which vilified Christianity and which might lead to a breach of the peace”.
The old blasphemy law should go in the name of rationality and free debate; we should not accept that such laws remain even if they are difficult to use. The churches and their sad, deluded flocks should not be protected by the state from debate or ridicule (or even abuse). A law does not have to be used — or used often — to intimidate critics of religion.
The Home Office has stated that the new intended law would not interfere with “legitimate debate, religious activities or the freedom of expression”. But the bourgeois state is the body that will define the boundaries of free expression.
The comedian Rowan Atkinson has suggested films like Monty Python’s Life of Brian would not have been made had Blunkett’s new law been in place at the time. We should oppose it!