British Baptist theologians have joined other church and civil-rights organizations in calling for an end to Great Britain’s blasphemy laws, which government leaders say are anachronistic and unfairly favor the Anglican Church.
Britain’s government has agreed to review laws against blasphemy and “blasphemous libel,” established in the 17th century when an offense against religion was viewed as an offense against the state, after consulting with the Church of England.
The review comes after controversy over Sudan’s jailing last November of a British teacher accused of blasphemy against Islam for allowing school children to name a teddy bear after the prophet Muhammad. The teacher, Gillian Gibbons, was pardoned and returned to England after diplomatic protests from Britain.
“In the light of the widespread outrage at the conviction of the British teacher for blasphemy in Sudan over the name of a teddy bear, is it not time to repeal our own blasphemy law?” several prominent representatives of religious, secular, legal and artistic communities wrote in a Jan. 8 letter to the London Telegraph.”The ancient common law of blasphemous libel purports to protect beliefs rather than people or communities,” the letter said. “Most religious commentators are of the view that the Almighty does not need the ‘protection’ of such a law.”
The leaders said the blasphemy law “damages social cohesion” and is discriminatory because it covers attacks only on tenets of Christianity and the Church of England and does not offer similar protection to other religions, like Islam.
Supporters of repeal come from a wide swath of public opinion including Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury; Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass; Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, author of the controversial best-seller The God Delusion; and the Christian think tank Ekklesia.
Sian Murray Williams, tutor at Bristol Baptist College, said the blasphemy law was a means of controlling those who disagreed with the state church.
“As a dissenting Baptist, I’m wary of any law which shores up the privileged position of the Church,” she told the Baptist Times. “The right to religious freedom and to the expression of faith, Christian or otherwise, is now protected by other legal provision. So I think that the law is not only anachronistic but is unjust in a religiously plural society and should be repealed.”
Nicholas Wood, director of the Oxford Centre for Christianity and Culture at Regent’s Park College, agreed that the law is outdated and “needs thorough revision if not abolition.”
“Liberty of religion and freedom of conscience should be key elements of a Baptist approach to such matters, while proper sensitivity to the feelings of all members of the community should be appropriately safeguarded by laws in relation to incitement to hatred or violence,” he said.
The last man to be jailed for blasphemy in Britain was John William Gott, who was sentenced to nine months hard labor in 1922 for publishing a description of Jesus entering Jerusalem “like a circus clown on the back of two donkeys.”
The law’s last successful use was in 1977, when Mary Whitehouse, founder of the National Viewers and Listeners Association–now known as mediawatch–sued the now-defunct UK newspaper Gay News for publishing James Kirkup’s poem “The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name” about a fictional centurion’s love for Jesus while taking him down from the cross.
Some British Muslims unsuccessfully called for author Salman Rushdie to be tried under the law after the publication of his controversial novel, The Satanic Verses. A recent effort by the activist group Christian Voice to sue the BBC over the musical “Jerry Springer–The Opera” also failed.
Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow called it indefensible to privilege one religion over another in a democracy. For Christians, he said, “there is the added irony that Christ was himself arraigned on a charge of blasphemy.”
“Using the law to attack opinions about belief is to misuse it, and suggesting that God needs protection against free speech makes no theological sense at all,” Barrow said. “The Christian message is about the power of self-giving love, not the love of one’s own power. This is why it is wrong religiously as well as legally and democratically.”
Nigel Wright, principal of Spurgeon’s College, told the Baptist Times the current blasphemy laws were impossible to defend but warned, “We also need to learn as a culture how to engage in intelligent and civil debate.”
“It would be a pity if tidying up a piece of outmoded legislation led to the idea that nothing is sacred,” Wright said.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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Bob Allen was the managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, writing more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure. He is currently the news editor at Baptist News Global.