The UK Parliamentary Select Committee Report

The offence of blasphemy, last successfully prosecuted in the UK in 1977, has now been abolished. However, an analysis of the offence is instructive and the history leading up to its abolition will be briefly recounted. Following a 1985 report by the Law Commission, which concluded that the offence should be repealed, and a similar recommendation by the UN Human Rights Committee, in 2002, the House of Lords appointed a Select Committee ‘to consider and report on the law relating to religious offences’. The Report did not offer a conclusion regarding the law of blasphemy, but offered several possible options for reform which will be discussed later. The report, in its approach to religious freedom, mostly encompasses the identity aspect of religious freedom rather than its expres­sive-critical aspect, as will be seen in the following discussion.

In its analysis of the law under the Human Rights Act 1998, the Committee saw in the prohibition a contravention of freedom of expression (Article 10) and of the obligation not to discriminate in the application of the right to religious freedom (Articles 9 to 14). It thus looked at the equality of protection of religious freedom of the members of groups, which the blasphemy laws either did or did not protect. The Report did not consider religious freedom as a critical- expressive right, the religious freedom of the blasphemer, which is impaired by blasphemy laws.

The Select Committee suggested three options for reform the offence of blas­phemy, without choosing between them: ‘leave as is’, repeal, or replace with a broader offence. The reasoning behind each of the approaches reveals more of a community-identity approach than an expressive-critical approach to religious freedom. One reason for the first option, leaving the law unchanged, was that blasphemy law was part of the legal fabric; this reasoning underscores the law’s constitutional heritage and national identity, which should be tampered with only for weighty reasons. This is a viewpoint that sits squarely within the community perception of the right to religious freedom.

Under the reasons in support of the ‘repeal’ option, the Report stressed that the common law offence of blasphemy was discriminatory as it protected only one religion. The Report also stated that the most serious deficiency of the blasphemy offence is that UK courts had interpreted the offence as one of strict liability. The Report did not directly ask, however, whether any offence of blasphemy would be commensurate with respect for religious freedom. An expressive-critical approach would raise this question and answer it by noting that a blasphemy offence is incommensurate with the right to religious freedom.

Under the option of replacement of the offence with a broader, non-discriminatory provision, the Report suggested the use of the Indian Penal Code provisions as a starting point, particularly Article 295A, which states:

Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, insults or attempts to insult the religion or religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprison­ment… or with a fine, or with both.

The Indian Supreme Court viewed this Article as commensurate with the Indian Constitution’s provisions of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The Indian approach, as the Report itself noted, is based on the uppermost con­sideration of preventing religious strife in a particular political context. The Report envisioned problems with such a law, namely potential misuse for political prose­cutions (which it did, however, see as unlikely to occur in the UK) and the difficulty of defining hurt to religious feelings.

Yet the more basic objection should stem from a view of religious freedom that sees the value of this right in the freedom to criticize and debate issues of religion and belief. Even deliberately insulting speech is not necessarily without merit; some effective conveying of religious ideas for and against religions is deliberately provocative and insulting. There is, however, speech that effectively silences, through propagation of hate or intimidation, members of a religious group from expressing their own voice and enjoying their rights as equal citizens. This speech should be more narrowly defined and is better addressed through prohibitions on hate speech.