A funny thing happened in November when Britain launched a righteous protest over Sudan’s arrest of a British schoolteacher accused of insulting Islam by letting her students name a class teddy bear Muhammad.
The Sudanese ambassador was summoned; Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a protest. But it didn’t take long 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 Wednesday 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 of Lords.
“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Legislature began consideration of a bill to phase out that state’s blasphemy proscription, along with other outdated “blue laws.”
Wednesday’s vote in the upper house of Parliament 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. Still, the vote was seen as a crucial hurdle in a process that is now all but assured.
“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. “It’s an unusable law, as it stands at the moment, and in the past it’s been a very cruel law.”
In fact, Parliament has never passed a blasphemy law. It is a common-law crime established centuries ago and clarified by judges in the 19th century to protect the beliefs of the Church of England; citizens may fall afoul if they insult God, Christ, the Christian religion or the Bible in a way that is scurrilous, abusive or offensive, or in a manner that may breach the peace.
Attacks on other religions are not covered, prompting many critics to brand the law as discriminatory.
In practice, the law has seldom been used, and in 2006 a new law making it a crime to incite religious hatred was adopted as a more equitable alternative. 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 that 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.
Just this week, a Christian activist organization, Christian Voice, lost its appeal under the blasphemy laws of a challenge to the musical " Jerry Springer: The Opera.”
“Far from being abolished, the laws against blasphemy should be strengthened to remove the loopholes the courts have created,” Christian Voice’s national director, Stephen Green, said in an interview. “This is all part of a move by the atheists to turn us into a secular state.”
The case of the teacher in Sudan, Gillian Gibbons, ended with a pardon and release after eight days in custody, negotiated in part by Muslim members of the British Parliament. Gibbons said in a statement that she had “great respect for the Muslim religion” and had intended no offense when she allowed her students to choose a name for the bear, but protesters in Sudan continued to call for punishing her.
The Church of England has cautiously elected not to oppose abolishing the British law, though senior clerics have emphasized that any change in the law should not be seen as a move toward secularism.