Bar talk

John Gott was the last man to be sent to prison under the UK's blasphemy laws in 1921, for publishing a pamphlet which compared Christ to a donkey-riding circus clown. Since then, blasphemy has hit the headlines only twice

First, in 1977 when self-proclaimed morals champion Mary Whitehouse successfully prosecuted Gay News for its publication of a poem that depicted a Roman centurion fantasising about the dead body of Christ, and more recently, an Iranian businessman failed to convict author Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses because the court ruled that Christianity was the only religion protected by the ancient laws.
The fact that Christianity – or more specifically the Church of England – is still legally protected has been the source of much disquiet over the years. Yet shortly after the Mary Whitehouse debacle in the 1970s, a Church of England General Synod working party declared that the blasphemy laws should be scrapped altogether. Even the Law Commission has opposed the legislation, and in 1985 recommended that blasphemy should be erased from the statute books, although it has imperiously remained there all the same.
Now, at long last, a House of Lords select committee on religious offences has been appointed to consider, among other things, the future of blasphemy. Members such as head of One Essex Court Lord Grabiner QC will hear representations on this most prickly of issues from a variety of organisations, including the British Humanist Association, inter-faith groups, Christian churches and the National Secular Society.
But the group of 12 peers could be in for a testing couple of months. The waters are already muddy as a result of the Government's string of attempts to pass a new offence of incitement to religious hatred through Parliament, in the wake of the 11 September attacks. Peers have refused to pass the measures until the old blasphemy laws have been suitably debated. As a result, the Lords select committee is now chewing over a bill submitted by Lord Avebury in January, which closely resembles the clause omitted from last December's anti-terror bill.
In the meantime, organisations such as The Muslim News have leapt at the possibility of reform and want to see blasphemy laws extended rather than binned altogether. Clearly there are problems with both scenarios, and it is easy to see why the blasphemy laws have been left to moulder for so long.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC, at Blackstone Chambers, has been outspoken on this issue ever since he successfully defended Salman Rushdie against claims that The Satanic Verses insulted Islam. “I argued that the ancient crime of blasphemy was an anomaly and to extend it from Christianity to other faiths, though it would remove a form of discrimination, would nevertheless be an interference with free speech,” he says. “One woman's religion is another woman's blasphemy. Now the way forward is to abolish blasphemy as soon as possible and to put in its place a narrowly drawn public disorder offence.”
Defining the remit of such a law could also prove problematic given the current tenor of the anti-terror debate and the delicate relationships between different religions.
Neil Addison of New Bailey Chambers agrees that religious offences would be better dealt with by 'ordinary law', rather than by what has been described elsewhere as an attempt at a 'back-door blasphemy law'. Others fear that a new religious offence could pose serious problems for freedom of speech and thought. “I regret that the issues of blasphemy and incitement to religious hatred have been tied up together like this,” says Addison, an expert on harassment law. “To be frank, we could abolish blasphemy and not have any religious offences at all.”
In Ireland, the Supreme Court has abolished blasphemy because it protected the Church of England, not the Catholic Church. Lord Lester sees the sense in this and hopes this country will follow suit. “It is all crazy, given that there are only one million Anglicans and two million Muslims [in this country],” he says. “The Christian church… is strong enough to protect itself. I don't think we should be operating under a medieval system of criminal law.”
But whether or not his noble friends on the select committee will agree with him by the end of the summer is quite a different matter. Watch this space.