USA and Canada
This page considers blasphemy regimes in North America.
It covers -
The preamble to the Canadian Constitution refers to the supremacy
of God but does not establish a particular religious faith
or Church. The Charter of Rights & Freedoms provides for
freedom of religion.
Section 296 of the Canadian Criminal Code deals with "blasphemous
libel" as part of offences against the person and reputation
(1) Every one who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty
of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for
a term not exceeding two years.
Question of fact (2) It is a question of fact whether or
not any matter that is published is a blasphemous libel.
Saving (3) No person shall be convicted of an offence under
this section for expressing in good faith and in decent
language, or attempting to establish by argument used in
good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on
a religious subject.
Blasphemous libel is not defined in the Code or the Constitution.
In contrast to Tasmania, where there are similar provisions
with a shared basis in UK law, the federal Attorney-General's
consent is not required in order to commence a prosecution.
As noted in the NSW Law Reform Commission report, the Canadian
case law (primarily relating to Quebec) is contradictory and
there is uncertainty about the precise features of the offence,
although it has been construed as encompassing Christian faith
generally (rather than an established Church).
The provisions are not considered to cover non-Christian faiths.
Past writing on reform of the Criminal Code has suggested
abolition of the offence on the basis that is inconsistent
with the Charter of Rights.
It should be noted that the hatespeech provisions of the Criminal
Code create offences of public incitement of and wilful promotion
of hatred against an identifiable group, defined as including
The US inherited - and during the early colonial period strengthened
- the UK regime, with protection varying on which church was
established in particular jurisdictions.
Chapter 272 (36) of the Massachusetts code (concerned with
"crimes against chastity, morality, decency and good
order") thus provides
wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing
or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government
or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously
reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing
or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and
ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures
shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than
one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars,
and may also be bound to good behavior.
offence is a relic of the era when New England jurisdictions
such as Connecticut prescribed the death penalty for witchcraft,
blasphemy, "cursing or smiting of parents" and the
"incorrigible stubbornness" of children.
At the federal level the state blasphemy statutes and local
ordinances have essentially been rejected as inconsistent
with the First Amendment's protection of free speech.
The landmark judicial ruling was by the US Supreme Court in
Joseph Burstyn, Inc v Wilson during 1952. New York
had banned exhibition of Roberto Rossellini's The Miracle
as "sacrilegious", with the court accepting that
the state law was an unconstitutional prior restraint on freedom
is not the business of government in our nation to suppress
real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine,
whether they appear in publications, speeches or motion
Clarke commented that
seeking to apply the broad and all-inclusive definition
of 'sacrilegious' given by the New York Courts, the censor
is set adrift upon a boundless sea amid a myriad of conflicting
currents of religious views, with no charts but those provided
by the most vocal and powerful orthodoxies. New York cannot
vest such unlimited restraining control over motion pictures
in a censor. Under such a standard the most careful and
tolerant censor would find it virtually impossible to avoid
favoring one religion over another, and he would be subject
to an inevitable tendency to ban the expression of unpopular
sentiments sacred to a religious minority.
ruling has been acknowledged in subsequent litigation over
the exhibition of films - notably Scorsese's The Last
Temptation of Christ (Nyack v MCA Inc in 1990),
discussed in Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the
Religious Right and the culture wars (Uni Press of Kentucky
2008) by Thomas Lindlof - and the graphic arts, with opponents
of particular works accordingly seeking restrictions on funding
bodies such as National Endowment for the Arts (eg over Serrano's
Piss Christ) or organising boycots of media groups
and curatorial institutions.