UK and Eire
This page considers blasphemy regimes in the UK and Ireland.
It covers -
As noted in the first page of this profile, overseas
legislation and practice regarding blasphemy takes several
Several jurisdictions feature explicit prohibitions on blasphemous
publication and private speech (eg Pakistan) or rely on commmon
law, although there have been few successful prosecutions
in recent years. Prohibitions generally relate to a particular
creed or an established church and thus do not cover all faiths.
Other jurisdictions have formally abolished the offence of
blasphemy or blasphemous libel.
Although the interpretation of historic and recent case law
is problematic, there is some movement towards use of hatespeech
legislation rather than specific blasphemy provisions in criminal
or other codes in restricting expression that might offend
adherents of a particular faith/organisation or incite hostility
to those adherents.
The International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights
- noted in our discussion
of human rights - provides for positive and negative rights
regarding freedom of religion, essentially through restraints
on the state.
Article 18 indicates that
Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience
and religion.This right shall include freedom to have or
to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom,
either individually or in community with others and in public
or private, to manifest his religion or belief in public
or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship,
observance, practice and teaching.
2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair
his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of
3. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be
subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law
and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health
or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
Article 20 indicates that
2. Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred
that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility
or violence shall be prohibited by law.
As of December 2004 English common law featured an offence
of blasphemy, although there were recurrent suggestions that
it should be superseded by protection under anti-vilification
statutes. Those suggestions were embodied in the Criminal
Justice and Immigration Act 2008 (passed on 8 May 2008),
which featured an amendment to abolish the common law offences
of blasphemy and blasphemous libel.
Protection prior to the 2008 Act related to the established
Church of England rather than all religious beliefs and organisations.
It was characterised as encompassing any publication that
any contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter
relating to God, Jesus Christ or the Bible, or the formularies
of the Church of England as by law established. It is not
blasphemous to speak or publish opinions hostile to the
Christian religion, or to deny the existence of God, if
the publication is couched in decent and temperate language.
The test to be applied is as to the manner in which the
doctrines are advocated and not to the substance of the
salient contemporary cases are the 1970s 'Gay News
Case' (Whitehouse v Lemon) about publication of a 'blasphemous'
poem, litigation regarding Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses
and censorship of the Visions of Ecstasy film.
In the first case Mary Whitehouse (1910-2001) of the Festival
of Light initiated a private prosecution - later taken over
by the Crown - against UK magazine Gay News for publishing
Professor James Kirkup's poem
The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name regarding the
body of Christ.
In 1979 the House of Lords affirmed a jury's decision to convict
the editor and publisher - who were fined rather than imprisoned
- despite arguments that the crime was archaic (with the last
conviction in 1922, when John Gott was sentenced to nine months
with hard labour for selling blasphemous pamphlets) and that
intent to cause offence could not be proven beyond reasonable
doubt because the publication was not aimed at a general readership.
The Lords held that intent to outrage was unnecessary; it
was sufficient to publish material that a jury found blasphemous.
The decision was widely criticised, as were official statements
in 2003 that police were considering prosecution of presenter
Joan Bakewell for reading the poem aloud during a BBC television
broadcast. In 1997 the police announced
that no charge would be to be brought over a UK group's hyperlink
to a US site that featured the poem.
The narrowness of protection - and arbitrariness of prosecution
- was demonstrated in Regina v Chief Metropolitan Stipendiary
Magistrate ex parte Choudhury, with a ruling in 1990
that the offence of blasphemy does not extend to Islam or
faiths other than Christianity. A private prosecution thus
could not be brought against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic
The Choudhury ruling followed the 1985 report by
the Law Commission (a counterpart of the ALRC) that recommended
abolition of the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous
libel, characterising them as an unnecessary part of a modern
The Law Commission noted that unbelievers or adherents to
other religious creeds did not have the same privileged status
as the established church. In a reflection of comments that
a deity does not need protection from man it commented that
has long been an acceptable means of focusing attention
upon a particular aspect of religious practice or dogma
which its opponents regard as offending against the wider
interests of society ... in that context use or abuse of
insults may well be a legitimate means of expressing a point
of view upon the matter
similar stance was taken in the 2003 report of the House of
Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences. Rowan Atkinson
commented in 2005 that
telling a good and incisive religious joke, you should be
praised. For telling a bad one, you should be ridiculed
and reviled. The idea that you could be prosecuted for the
telling of either is quite fantastic.
importance of discretion in interpretation following Gay News
was highlighted in the 1989 decision by the British Board
of Film Classification (BBFC) to deny a classification to
the video of Nigel Wingrove's Visions of Ecstasy
on the ground that it was blasphemous. The film concerns 16th
century mystic St Teresa of Avila, whose eroticised language
had attracted attention from her contemporaries (including
the Inquisition) and later scholars with exemplary credentials.
Wingrove applied to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming
that the ban breached Article 10 of the European Convention
of Human Rights as disproportionate to the aim of protecting
the public, but received no satisfaction on the ground that
denial was consistent with UK law.
In November 2007 Stephen Green of evangelical group Christian
Voice went to the English High Court seeking the right to
bring a private prosecution for the common law offence of
blasphemous libel. He had applied in the City of Westminster
magistrates' court in 2006 to prosecute BBC Director-General
Jonathan Thoday and producer Mark Thompson over a 2005 broadcast
of musical Jerry Springer - The Opera.
Green applied two years after the broadcast for a summons
to bring the prosecution but was refused, prompting an appeal
to the High Court, which ruled that the musical "was
not and could not reasonably be regarded as aimed at, or an
attack on, Christianity or what Christians held sacred".
really sympathetic to the freedom of speech argument. But
blasphemy is not a matter of free speech, it's people going
out of their way to offend almighty God.
In July 2008 Emily Mapfuwa launched a private prosecution
against the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead
for displaying a statue of Christ with an erection. Mapfuwa
claimed that exhibition of the sculpture, by Terence Koh,
offended public decency and breached Section 5 of the Public
Order Act 1986. Critics noted that the exhibition featured
other Koh works (such as ET and Mickey Mouse) with erections
and questioned whether tumescence was becoming a somewhat
In 2009 advocacy organisation Christian Voice complained to
the Advertising Standards Authority (Britain's national advertising
regulator) over the 'atheist ad campaign', which featured
signage on London buses proclaiming
is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.
Christian Voice spokesperson commented that the ads are offensive
to members of Christian and other religions who believe in
a single God and, with a nice line in cheek, claimed that
the campaign breached the advertising code (PDF)
on the grounds of substantiation and truthfulness. In Australia
APN Outdoors, part of the INM/APN media conglomerate, simply
refused ads from The Atheist Foundation, although buses in
Adelaide have featured religious messages such as "John
In Scotland the "uttering of profanities against God
or the Holy Scriptures in a scoffing manner out of a reproachful
disposition" is a common law offence. There have been
no recent convictions (the last reported prosecution for blasphemy
was in 1843) and as in England some religious leaders have
suggested that special protection is not required. Uncertainty
about the scope for prosecution and conviction has arguably
deterred some publication.
Article 40.6(1)i of Eire's 1922 Constitution provides that
"publication or utterance" of "blasphemous
matter" is an offence punishable in accordance with law,
with Article 44 stating that
State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is
due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence,
and shall respect and honour religion.
Constitution does not define blasphemy, although standard
reference works characterise it as
the crime which consists of indecent and offensive attacks
on Christianity, or the Scriptures, or sacred persons or
objects calculated to outrage the feelings of the community.
The Constitution declares that the publication or utterance
of blasphemous matter is an offence which shall be punishable
in accordance with law ... The mere denial of Christian
teaching is not sufficient to constitute the offence
8 of the Constitution however specifies that
of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion
are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to
every citizen, and no law may be made either directly or
indirectly to endow any religion, or prohibit or restrict
the free exercise thereof or give any preference, or impose
any disability on account of religious belief or religious
13.1 of the Defamation Act 1961, provides that
Every person who composes, prints or publishes any blasphemous
... libel shall, on conviction thereof on indictment, be
liable to a fine not exceeding five hundred pounds or to
imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to both
such fine and imprisonment or to penal servitude for a term
not exceeding seven years
Under section 13(2) the court may make an order for seizure
and detention of all copies of the libel in the possession
of the person or another person named in evidence on oath.
In pursuance of such an order, a member of the Garda Siochana
may enter if necessary by force and search buildings for copies
of the libel.
The Act was used in the unsuccessful prosecution
in 1999 of a newspaper publisher (Corway v. Independent
Newspapers (Ireland) Limited). Provision for returning
such copies in the event of a successful appeal of conviction
is made in section 13(3).
Eire's Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989
prohibits publication of material designed to stir up "hatred",
including hatred against a group on account of religious affiliation.
The 1991 Law Reform Commission of Ireland consultation paper
On The Crime of Libel suggested that "there
is no place for the offence of blasphemous libel in a society
which respects freedom of speech".
Because blasphemy as an offence could not be abolished without
a constitutional referendum the Commission recommended creation
of a new statutory offence of blasphemous libel, which would
cover matter "the sole effect of which is likely to cause
outrage to a substantial number of adherents concerning a
matter or matters held sacred" by a religion.