Australia and New Zealand
This pages considers blasphemy and sacrilege regimes in Australia
and New Zealand.
It covers -
complements the separate profile on the history of Australian
censorship regimes that provides a more detailed discussion
of legislation, cases, inquiries and other developments.
Particular blasphemy cases are discussed in the following
page of this profile.
As noted in this site's discussion of censorship, the
first governor and judges of the colony in New South Wales
unpacked existing English enactments and case law that encompassed
public speech and published literature, with sanctions for
example regarding -
blasphemies against God as denying His being or provenance
... or profane scoffing at Holy Scriptures or exposing any
part of them to contempt or ridicule
... seditious words, in derogation of the established religion
are indictable as tending to a breach of the peace.
persistence of that law - albeit increasingly as a curiosity
- is reflected in action by Reverend Ogle and Reverend Father
O'Neill during 1986 against the film Je Vous Salue Maria
under blasphemy provisions and the 1997 'Piss Christ'
case (Pell v Trustees of NGV) by the Roman Catholic
Archbishop of Melbourne to suppress a work in the National
Gallery of Victoria.
Justice Harper in the latter case commented that blasphemous
libel was an anachronism (from a time when the State in England
was intrinsically linked with the Church through the Ecclesiastical
courts), noting that section 116 of the Australian Constitution
forbids the Commonwealth from making a law for establishing
any religion and that Victoria does not recognise an established
At the state level blasphemy - generally identified as 'blasphemous
libel' - has largely been bundled in Summary Offences and
Criminal Code legislation with other desiderata such as prohibitions
on "interfering with corpses", "pretending
to witchcraft" or disturbing/interrupting
religious worship and molesting preachers. Some observers
have suggested that blasphemous libel, where not explicitly
abolished, may have simply lapsed through disuse over the
Sacrilege as a specific offence appears in a handful of state
statutes and common law, often being addressed as a surrogate
for property offences (eg theft, vandalism, arson).
The shape of the federal government's responsibilities under
the Constitution and
the progressive updating of enactments mean that at the national
is not an offence in common law
there are few explicit references to blasphemy in federal
are no explicit references to sacrilege in federal legislation.
There is for example there is no express offence of blasphemous
libel in the Crimes Act 1914.
The Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) commented
in 1991 that
a society in which there are many religions, it is not appropriate
to give the special protection that blasphemy affords to
only one of these and to extend the law of blasphemy would
involve a determination of which organisations are religions.
That reflected the ALRC's assessment that strictly Australian
blasphemy law "only protects the customs, usages and
practices of the Church of England, not even of all Christian
faiths". The Commission noted that developing a "satisfactory
definition of religion" would unreasonably interfere
with freedom of speech.
References to blasphemy in the federal code centre on censorship
law: there are no references to blasphemy or associated offences
in the Crimes Act 1914. Regulation 4A of the Customs
(Prohibited Imports) Regulations 1956 formerly prohibited
importation of "blasphemous material" without the
written permission of the Attorney-General. The complementary
Customs (Cinematograph Films) Regulations prohibited
registration of imported films and advertising matter that
Criteria used by the Office of Film & Literature Classification
for assessing the suitability of works for distribution in
Australia similarly included the presence of blasphemous material.
Section 118 of the Broadcasting & Television Act 1942
provides for restrictions on the broadcasting of "objectionable
The [Australian Broadcasting] Corporation, the SBS or a
licensee shall not broadcast matter which is blasphemous,
indecent or obscene.
(2) A person shall not render for broadcasting an item,
or pass or select for broadcasting an item, which contains
matter which is blasphemous, indecent or obscene.
The Act does not define 'blasphemous'.
An offence of sending blasphemous material through the post
was abolished in 1989, replaced by the offence of using postal
or telecommunications services to menace or harass
a person, or in a manner that would be regarded by reasonable
persons as "offensive" in the circumstances.
Prior to that time officials were authorised to
to receive or transmit a telegram containing blasphemous,
indecent, obscene, offensive or scandalous matter in its
contents address or signature
any time cause any postal article having anything profane,
blasphemous, indecent, obscene, offensive or libellous written
or drawn on the outside thereof or any obscene enclosure
in any postal article to be destroyed.
registration regulations prohibit registration of vessels
names that are blasphemous or likely to be offensive to
members of the public;
(e) names of, or suggesting connection with, members of
the Royal family or suggesting Royal patronage
Australian states and territories
Treatment of blasphemy and sacrilege in the legislation of
the Australian states and territories is uneven, with provisions
in some criminal codes (generally dealing with prosecution
of blasphemy as a common law offence) and recognition of blasphemy
as a basis for restricting access to literature or other content.
The Australian Capital Territory adapted the New South Wales
Crimes Act 1900, recognising an offence of blasphemy.
of the ACT Crimes Act 1900 accordingly provides
person shall be liable to prosecution in respect of any
publication by him or her, orally or otherwise, of words
or matter charged as blasphemous, if the publication is
by way of argument, or statement, and not for the purpose
of scoffing or reviling, nor of violating public decency,
nor in any way tending to a breach of the peace
Section 4 of the Territory's Law Reform (Abolitions &
Repeals) Act 1996, concerned with the abolition of "certain
common law misdemeanours", specified
The common law misdemeanours of criminal libel, blasphemous
libel, seditious libel and obscene libel are abolished.
In New South Wales, where blasphemy is a common law offence,
of the NSW Crimes Act 1900 provides that
person shall be liable to prosecution in respect of any
publication by him or her orally, or otherwise, of words
or matter charged as blasphemous, where the same is by way
of argument, or statement, and not for the purpose of scoffing
or reviling, nor of violating public decency, nor in any
manner tending to a breach of the peace
took blasphemy out of its criminal code in 1899, when it was
omitted during the large-scale codification of the colony's
criminal law - tacitly disappearing in line with Sir Samuel
Walker Griffith's comment that the code did not deal with
those provisions of English law that were "manifestly
obsolete or inapplicable to Australia".
As with other states, blasphemy is recognised as 'offensive'
or 'objectionable' in censorship law: the Queensland Objectionable
Literature Act 1954 authorises the Literature Board of
Review to restrict distribution of literature deemed "objectionable",
including matter that is "blasphemous".
In South Australia blasphemy is also a common law offence.
A 1977 report by the state's Criminal Law & Penal Methods
Reform Committee noted that although blasphemy was an offence
"today it would seem anachronistic to charge anyone with
blasphemous libel" and accordingly recommended its abolition.
It is however recognised
in the Classification of Theatrical Performances Act 1978
and video & games classification legislation.
The Tasmanian Criminal Code features an explicit reference
to blasphemy, although unlike the New South Wales legislation
there is no statutory reference to a breach of the peace.
Section 119 of the Tasmanian Criminal Code Act 1924
(an element of "Acts Injurious to the Public in General
- Crimes Relating to Religion") provides that
Any person who, by words spoken or intended to be read,
wilfully publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of a crime.
(2) The question whether any matter so published is or is
not blasphemous is a question of fact.
(3) It is not an offence under this section to express in
good faith and in decent language, or to attempt to establish
by arguments used in good faith and conveyed in decent language,
any opinion whatever upon any religious subject.
(4) No person shall be prosecuted under this section without
the consent in writing of the Attorney-General.
In Victoria the offence may exist as a common law crime, reflected
in Section 469AA
of the Crimes Act 1956. Prior to the 1990s the last
attempt to prosecute blasphemy as a common law offence occurred
in 1919; the NSW Law Reform Commission report notes that the
charges were dropped by the Crown prior to the trial.
Victorian legislation features prohibitions against blasphemous
speech, with the Transport (Passenger Vehicles) Regulations
1994 for example providing
that anyone on a a public passenger vehicle must not
(a) use any blasphemous, indecent, insulting, offensive,
profane, violent or threatening language or gesture to the
annoyance or hindrance of any other person
Equal Opportunity Commission Victoria chief executive Helen
Szoke commented in 2006 that the state's Racial &
Religious Tolerance Act - dealing with behaviour that
incites hatred, serious contempt, revulsion and severe ridicule
of others because of race and religion - would not prohibit
the Jyllands-Posten cartoons discussed elsewhere
in this profile.
She indicated that there was a difference between causing
offence and vilification -
The behaviour has to be much more serious than causing offence,
affronting someone's sense of decency or hurting their feelings
in order for it to be considered vilifying. Incitement is
more than just merely holding a view or expressing an opinion;
it is the encouragement or promotion of hatred towards others.
The law is not designed to restrict freedom of speech, genuine
debate or discussion, but to stamp out the most serious
forms of racial and religious vilification. In general,
racially stereotyping comments, blasphemy, off-hand remarks
or racist or religious jokes, while offensive to some people,
are unlikely to be considered vilifying.
Section 4 of the Western Australian Criminal Code Act
Compilation Act 1913 - similar to section 5 of the Queensland
Criminal Code Act 1899 - abolished the offence of
blasphemy through failure to include that offence in the WA
code. However, various prohibitions remain in place.
The 1940 Jetties Act Regulations for example provide
(b) No person shall behave in a violent or offensive manner
to the annoyance of others, or write or use any insulting,
indecent, obscene, blasphemous, or abusive words, or wilfully
interfere with the comfort of any person in or upon any
jetty, shed, vehicle, or premises of the Department.
statutes refer to sacrilege and there have been convictions
in the ACT and other jurisdictions.
Section 167 of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act 1935
(SA) thus refers to "sacrilege" and provides that
(a) breaks and enters a place of divine worship and commits
an offence to which this section applies in that place;
(b) breaks out of a place of divine worship after committing
an offence to which this section applies in that place,
is guilty of sacrilege and liable to be imprisoned
the offence being "theft or an offence of which theft
is an element; an offence against the person; or an offence
involving interference with, damage to, or destruction of,
property punishable by imprisonment for 3 years or more".
The New Zealand regime has followed the same trajectory as
that in Australia.
Section 123 of the New Zealand Crimes Act 1961, dealing
with "blasphemous libel" as part of "crimes
against religion, morality and public welfare", is similar
to section 119 of the Tasmanian Criminal Code.
It provides for
Every one is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding
one year who publishes any blasphemous libel.
(2) Whether any particular published matter is or is not
a blasphemous libel is a question of fact.
(3) It is not an offence against this section to express
in good faith and in decent language, or to attempt to establish
by arguments used in good faith and conveyed in decent language,
any opinion whatever on any religious subject.
(4) No one shall be prosecuted for an offence against this
section without the leave of the Attorney-General, who before
giving leave may make such inquiries as he thinks fit.
last reported prosecution was in 1922, after Labour newspaper
The Maoriland Worker published Siegfried Sassoon's
'blasphemous poem' Stand-To: Good Friday Morning:
I'd been on duty from two till four.
I went and stared at the dug-out door.
Down in the frowst I heard them snore.
'Stand to!' ...
Deep in water I splashed my way
Up the trench to our bogged front line.
Rain had fallen the whole damned night.
O Jesus, send me a wound to-day,
And I'll believe in Your bread and wine,
And get my bloody old sins washed white!
publisher was acquitted.
In 2001 the Minister of Justice Phil Goff responded to calls
for excision of blasphemy from the Crimes Act by commenting
offence still fulfils a function in our law in terms of
respecting the beliefs of the various religious communities
that exist in New Zealand
comment followed an unsuccessful private prosecution by MP
John Banks during 1998 of the Te Papa national museum for
display of the Virgin in a Condom artwork; Banks'
action was refused by the Solicitor-General.
In ratifying the International Covenant on Civil &
Political Rights New Zealand reserved the right not to
introduce "further legislation" with regard to Article
20, on the basis that existing law encompassed
offence of inciting racial disharmony or hostility between
different classes of persons as may endanger public safety,
notably the Human Rights Act 1993 and section 81(1)
of the Crimes Act 1961
offence of disturbing religious congregations in public
places or assembled for public worship, eg the Summary
Offences Act 1981 and Maori Community Development
on the use of profane language, eg the Telecommunications
Act 1987 and Penal Institutions Act 1954
2006 two New Zealand papers - The Christchurch Press
and Wellington Dominion-Post - published the 'Jyllands
Posten' cartoons and those images were shown by TVNZ and TV3.
what do people think
In Australia and in New Zealand, as in other countries,
some observers have commented that blasphemy statutes or common
law protection are archaic or out of step with 'community
The extent of contemporary support for traditional restrictions
on blasphemy is unclear, with some observers noting that advocacy
groups such as the Festival of Light have been vocal but have
small memberships and are arguably not representative of community
The credibility of letter-writing campaigns by such advocates
has been undermined by use of form letters and indications
that some enthusiasts have sent two or more letters under
different names. Demonstrations similarly have not resulted
in large numbers of protesters on the streets, although widespread
and deep offence does not necessarily involve mass protests
outside theatres or galleries.
There are no credible recent statistical studies and caution
should adopted in inferring from general surveys by the ABS
or other entities.
The ABS 2002 General Social Survey reported that 23% of Australian
adults participated in church or religious activities during
the three months prior to interview; other studies indicate
that the incidence of that participation was low (eg a person
attending a wedding or funeral once during the quarter rather
than attending a daily/weekly religious service). Weekly observance
cannot, however, be automatically equated with retention or
relaxation of restrictions.
The ABS data is broadly consistent with research by the National
Church Life Survey (NCLS).
The ABS reports that around two thirds of respondents ticked
'Christian' on the 2001 national Census form, although under
10% said they went to church. 27.2% identified themselves
as agnostic or did not report an affiliation. 1.5% were Islamic,
under 1% were Jewish, 1.9% were Buddhist. Some 70,000 were
supposedly 'Jedi', a reflection of geek humour rather than
meaningful religious affiliation.