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Britain's House of Lords abolishes blasphemy laws

Email|Print| Text size + By Kim Murphy
Los Angeles Times / March 6, 2008

LONDON - A funny thing happened last November when Britain launched a righteous protest over the arrest in Sudan of a British school teacher who was accused of insulting religion by naming a class teddy bear Mohammed.

The Sudanese ambassador was summoned; Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a protest. It didn't take long, though, for someone to point out that Downing Street was standing on diplomatic quicksand: Britain itself has a law making blasphemy a crime.

Thus began a period of collective soul-searching on free speech and secularism, traditional values and the church that anoints Britain's queen.

It culminated yesterday in a 148-87 vote in the House of Lords to abolish the laws on blasphemy after a wrenching, two-hour debate.

"It is crystal clear that the offenses of blasphemy and blasphemous libel are unworkable in today's society," Kay Andrews said in introducing the government-backed amendment, adding that "as long as this law remains on the statute books, it hinders the UK's ability to challenge oppressive blasphemy laws in other jurisdictions."

But in a debate that underscored Britain's continuing strong roots in the Church of England, there was substantial doubt about the wisdom of abandoning what for many is a symbol of the increasingly multicultural nation's reliance on Christian values as a foundation for law and society.

"The essential question is: Should we abolish Christian beliefs and replace them with secular beliefs? As long as there has been a country called England, it has been a Christian country, publicly acknowledging the one true God," said Detta O'Cathain, a Conservative member of the house.

"Noble lords may cry freedom, but I urge them to pause and consider that the freedom we have today was nurtured by Christian principles, and continues to be guided by them," she said.

Most remaining blasphemy laws in Western democracies are either little used or, like Britain's, on their way out. This week, the Massachusetts Legislature began consideration of a bill to phase out that state's blasphemy proscription, along with other outdated "blue laws."

Yesterday's vote in the House of Lords was an amendment to a broad proposed law on criminal justice that must still go back to the House of Commons for approval before taking effect.

"The law on blasphemy will be abolished. And good riddance, is what we say," Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said in an interview.

The last time anyone was imprisoned for blasphemy was in 1922, when a man was convicted after comparing Jesus Christ to a circus clown.

The last successful blasphemy prosecution occurred as a result of a private complaint in 1977 against a gay newspaper for publishing a poem which describes a Roman centurion's homosexual lovemaking with Christ's dead body, and legal analysts say it is doubtful any new prosecution could survive under European human rights laws.

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