UK: Lawmakers Vote to Scrap Law Against Christian Blasphemy

In a historic break with tradition, Britain's House of Lords voted on Wednesday to repeal laws making it a crime to commit blasphemy against Christianity.
Following months of pressure from left-wing legislators in its own party, the Labor government introduced a measure to abolish centuries-old laws against blasphemy and blasphemous libel.
Baroness Kay Andrews, a government leader in the upper house, noted that the laws were little used. There have been only four successful prosecutions since 1676.

In earlier cases, those convicted of "blasphemous expressions horrible to hear" had received lengthy prison terms or days in the stocks. The last case, against the since-closed Gay News newspaper in 1977, resulted in a heavy fine.

Andrews argued that the law was now in disuse and had been effectively replaced by the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006, which makes it a crime to incite hatred against any religion.

She added that the move was in no way an attack on religious beliefs and values and that Christianity would remain at the heart of Britain.

"We do not need to rely on such a law to remind ourselves that the sacred still has a role to play in today's society," she said.

Earlier this week, acting in its role as the highest British law court, a panel in the House of Lords also turned down the final attempt to prosecute the BBC over a 2005 airing of "Jerry Springer: The Opera."

An evangelical group filed suit in 2007 to have the head of the BBC prosecuted over the opera, which depicts Adam and Eve attacking Jesus in Hell, but the Lords ruled that the matter did not raise a "point of law of general public importance."

During the debate, Conservative Earl Michael Onslow argued that God did not need the help of any law to take care of "left-wing obscurantism" like the Jerry Springer opera.

"If He does exist, it is up to Him to get hold of the chap who wrote it and make sure that he does time in the diabolical house of correction." he said.

However, Baroness Detta O'Cathain, another Conservative, charged that repealing the law would be a major move towards turning Britain from a Christian nation into a totally secular one.

The Church of England is the official religion in England, with Queen Elizabeth holding the title of Defender of the Faith and several bishops voting in the House of Lords.

Parliament also begins each day with a prayer; and religious instruction is required in all British schools.

"There are people who want to see the establishment of Britain as a secular state, and they are certainly vocal," she said. "For them, abolishing blasphemy law is an important step in that direction."

Following the debate, the peers voted 148-87 for the measure, which will go to the House of Commons later this year as part of a larger criminal justice bill.

"This is a sad day for the United Kingdom," said Stephen Green, national director of Christian Voice, a conservative group. "Parliament has set the honor of Almighty God at naught just to please a few hard-line secularists."

David Nash, a law expert at Oxford Brookes University, said Thursday that repeal was assured in the Commons because of government support.

Nash said in his view, the Church of England was "reasonably happy" to accept the end of criminal blasphemy since the passage of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006.

By giving the repeal its tentative support, he said, the church may have been hoping to stall moves towards disestablishing it as the official religion -- for at least a few more years.

Terry Sanderson, head of the National Secular Society, said that the vote marked the end of a struggle by humanist reformers which had started in the 19th century.

"We're thrilled," he said. "This is the culmination of a 143-year battle."

By: Kevin McCandless

7 March 2008