On May 6th this year, the UK House of Commons voted to abolish Blasphemy and Blasphemous Libel from the statute books as an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. The final Act received royal assent on 8th May and will come into effect as of 8th July 2008. Blasphemy laws in the UK apply to blasphemy against Christianity exclusively.
The amendment to abolish blasphemy was originally introduced by the Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, but the Government persuaded him to withdraw it in order to introduce the amendment in the House of Lords instead. On March 5th, the Lords voted 148-87 in favour of the amendment. This included two Bishops: Nicholas Thomas Wright, Bishop of Durham and Kenneth William Stevenson, Bishop of Portsmouth. Then on May 6th, the House of Commons voted 378-57 in favour of the amendment. The National Secular Society has written reports on both the House of Lords debate and the House of Commons debate. Transcripts of the House of Lords debate can be found at the parliament website or as a pdf. There is also a transcript of the House of Commons debate.
The last attempted prosecution under the blasphemy law took place last year when the organisation Christian Voice brought a private prosecution against the BBC for its broadcast of Jerry Springer: The Opera, a show with very dark, tongue-in-cheek, humour. The last successful prosecution for Blasphemy was a private prosecution in 1977 by the infamous Mary Whitehouse brought against Denis Lemon, then editor of Gay News when it published James Kirkup’s poem The Love that Dares to Speak its Name, the graphic account of a roman soldier’s erotic love for Jesus. In Scotland, the last prosecution for blasphemy occurred in 1843.
Those in favour of the abolition of the blasphemy laws, argued that they were at best archaic and seldom used, and at worst they encroached upon freedom of speech. UK blasphemy laws privileged the Christian faith but did not apply to other religions. This was thought to be inappropriate for a modern day multi-cultural Britain where many people of many faiths and beliefs live together. Those against the motion argued that the UK is traditionally a Christian country and some feared that abolishing the blasphemy laws would be a first step to Disestablishment of the Church of England. This would mean that Christianity would no longer be considered the state religion and the UK would become secular to a certain degree.
Personally, I am glad that the blasphemy laws have been abolished. I am a firm believer in freedom of expression as a basic human right. I believe people should be free to criticise, parody or discuss religions, its members, its stances and its practices without persecution as they would any aspect of human life. Religions are free to condemn blasphemy as part of their private practices, but the state should not apply and enforce these beliefs on everyone. Religious groups may expel individuals who commit blasphemy, but the state must respect the right to Freedom of Expression for all its citizens.