The right to revile religion


IN BRITAIN, WHERE I just spent a busman’s holiday, civil libertarians, religious leaders and even the comedian Rowan Atkinson are savaging Prime Minister Tony Blair for proposing to criminalize “incitement to religious hatred.”

The Blair proposal, a consolation prize for British Muslims who are offended by the Labor government’s anti-terrorist measures, says this: “A person who uses threatening words or behavior, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offense if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.”

Critics argue that the language of the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill is sweeping. Matthew Parris, a gay columnist for the Times of London and a former member of Parliament, made the additional point that the law might prevent him from criticizing the pope for excluding homosexuals from the priesthood. “To what kind of philosophical shambles can our Government have been reduced, when it promotes laws to criminalize me if I encourage hatred of such a Pope, yet looks away when such a Pope encourages hatred of me?”


There’s a deeper argument to make against the measure. Why shouldn’t the truth, falsity or absurdity of a religion be up for grabs in British public debate?

Religious controversy was the focus of “Areopagitica,” John Milton’s seminal 1644 defense of free speech (though Milton made an exception for Roman Catholics, who couldn’t be trusted to play by the rules of debate that bound enlightened Protestants). The 19th century English writer Walter Savage Landor noted that “every sect is a moral check on its neighbor. Competition is as wholesome in religion as in commerce.”

Even though Britain has no 1st Amendment (or even a written constitution), Blair has been forced by outraged citizens to promise that bobbies won’t be rounding up people who tell jokes that begin: “A priest, a minister and a rabbi walked into a bar ... “ More embarrassing for him, the House of Lords -- the closest thing Britain has to a Supreme Court -- has attached language to the bill that gives new meaning to the term “crippling amendment.”

The Lords changed “insulting and abusive” to “threatening” in referring to speech, and added a disclaimer: “Nothing in this [bill] shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of adherents, or proselytizing or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practicing their religion or belief system.”

It’s easy for Americans to cite the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill as proof, once again, that the “rights of Englishmen” are better protected in its former colony than in the mother country. Too easy. Although our Supreme Court, with or without Sam Alito on the bench, would probably overturn an American version of Blair’s bill, the truth is that Americans also shrink from the full implications of Landor’s view of religious freedom as a lively marketplace of theological ideas.

Blasphemy laws, though now a dead letter, are part of the American as well as the British legal tradition. And they aren’t the only examples of laws criminalizing the mockery of other people’s religious beliefs.


In 1989, a menorah erected on the steps of the City-County Building in Pittsburgh during what the Supreme Court has called “the winter holiday season” was vandalized when someone spray-painted “PLO” on an accompanying sign reading “Salute to Liberty.” A police officer told the press that, if captured, the vandal might be prosecuted under a state law making it a crime to “desecrate a venerated object.”

Like blasphemy laws, this infraction probably wouldn’t survive a challenge in the high court, which after all has struck down laws against desecrating that most venerated of objects, the American flag. But the existence of the Pennsylvania law is proof that legislators in America aren’t that different from those in Britain.

A more recent example is the withdrawal from the Air Force of a code of ethics for chaplains that contained the statement: “I will not proselytize [members of] other religious bodies, but I retain the right to evangelize those who are not affiliated.” Given recent allegations of heavy-handed tactics by evangelical Christians at the Air Force Academy, this move is understandable, but it reflects a broad skittishness about theological controversy that is, in its own way, anti-religious.

If religion, like politics, could be debated in a free marketplace of ideas, the culture wars would not be so full of arguments against “religious bigotry,” some of them as tenuous as the Catholic League’s complaint a few years ago that “The Simpsons” disrespected Catholicism because it had Bart asking his mother, Marge: “Can we go Catholic so we can get communion wafers and booze?”

Precisely because religious beliefs purport to deal with the most important realities, one would think that the public discussion of competing faiths should be, in the words of the Supreme Court in a famous 1st Amendment case, “uninhibited, robust and wide open.”

But Tony Blair apparently doesn’t believe that, and neither do a lot of Americans.


Editor’s note: This is Michael McGough’s final biweekly column for the Op-Ed page.