Strategies for Fighting Blasphemy Laws in a Post-Tolerant World

Article excerpt

THE NEW DECADE was ushered in by a disturbing headline: "Irelands New Blasphemy Law Goes into Effect." New blasphemy law? Don't those belong in some earlier century? The unfortunate answer is no--blasphemy laws are making a comeback, and not just in Ireland.

Prior to 1978, no Englishman had been prosecuted for blasphemy in fifty-seven years; the last person to earn this distinction was John Gott, a fifty-six-year-old tailor who compared Jesus to a clown. His health was so broken by his sentence of nine months at hard labor that he died shortly after his release. Then in 1978, thirty years after Lord Denning had pronounced the blasphemy laws a "dead letter" in England and a decade after a 1697 blasphemy statute had been stricken from the books, an English Christian busybody brought a private, common-law blasphemy prosecution against a publication called the Gay News. The news paper and its editor were both fined for publishing a poem suggesting that Jesus engaged in homosexual activity, and the editor received a nine-month suspended jail sentence. On appeal the jail sentence was stricken, but the conviction and fines were upheld.

The Tony Blair government reignited interest in blasphemy prosecution in 2005 by introducing the "Incitement to Religious Hatred Act." This would have imposed a seven-year jail sentence for insulting another religion, even if there had been no intention to stir up "religious hatred." The bill was watered down before becoming law, but the stirring of the pot led to the next major English blasphemy case, this time against the BBC's broadcast of Jerry Springer: The Opera. This raucous satire featured, among other things, Jerry Springer sitting at the right hand of God, accompanied by a choir singing "Jerry Eleison" rather than "Kyrie Eleison." The BBC received some 45,000 complaints, many resulting from an orchestrated campaign even before it aired. The court dismissed the case, largely on the grounds that the show had already enjoyed a long run on the stage before its broadcast on the BBC. However, this reasoning simply taught blasphemy opponents that they need to respond more quickly.

When Britain's humanists then asked Parliament to repeal the common-law offense of blasphemy, the Anglican Church and others objected. As a result, the politicians did nothing, which means that more new blasphemy prosecutions may result.

A similar effort to repeal blasphemy laws in the Netherlands was also defeated last year. Irish authorities, after witnessing this drama, decided to flesh out the terms of a provision in Ireland's 1937 constitution declaring blasphemy illegal by defining the offense. An Irish court had ruled in 1999 that the constitution couldn't be enforced unless a statute delineated the elements of the crime precisely. Rather than just letting things slide, or moving to amend the constitution, the Irish legislature gave prosecutors the tools they need to attack blasphemers in the future.

In Russia, the rekindled love affair between church and state has led to renewed emphasis on blasphemy prosecution. When a museum director in 2003 assembled an exhibition of artifacts depicting criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church, a group of men broke in and defaced them. Charges against the vandals were dropped for "lack of evidence,' even though they were apprehended inside the museum. Instead, the museum director was fined $3,600 for "incitement to religious hatred" after the court declared the exhibition to be blasphemous.

The biggest splash among recent blasphemy controversies is the case of the 2005 Danish newspaper cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. To its immense credit, the Danish government resisted enormous diplomatic and economic pressure by not only refusing to prosecute the newspaper or the cartoonists, but by refusing to apologize or do anything other than stoutly maintain the right of freedom of expression for its citizens. Danish exports to the Middle East were cut in half by the resulting boycott, three Danish embassies were destroyed by terrorists, and over 100 people died in riots around the Muslim world. …