Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Submission from the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches


  1.1  Speaking to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1988 Unitarian Minister Andrew M Hill stated:

      "Our indigenous Western European understanding of blasphemy is rooted in the God centred world-views of the ancient world, where denying, abusing, insulting, speaking ill of God or the gods was thought to invite divine retribution, social disaster and public disorder. Lord Denning wrote its obituary in 1949— `The reason for this law was because it was thought that a denial of Christianity was liable to shake the fabric of society, which was itself founded upon the Christian religion. There is no such danger to society now and the offence of blasphemy is a dead letter.'"

  It was thought when the statue law was repealed in 1967 that it was solved. However, the continuing provisions noted by the Law commission in 1985 have been used in private actions.

  1.2  Since the 19th century, Unitarians have opposed the continued presence on the statute book of laws relating to blasphemy. Their existence does not accord with a modern nation state based on democratic principles. Lord Sutherland of Houndwood stated in the Lords on 30 January 2002 (Col. 325) "The classification of blasphemy as a crime belongs to another age", and Baroness Whitaker added (Col 330) "I read  .  .  .  that the Talmud was publicly burned as blasphemous and the publisher of Tom Paine's "The Age of Reason" was punished as a blasphemer. That is not an edifying history and one better curtailed." We completely agree.

  1.3  The point has been made that the blasphemy laws, as set out in the Law Commission's report of 1985 have rarely been used in the last 100 years, and in consequence are of little import. However, the threat of their use, possibly brought forward by private action, has regularly been made. The threat is therefore a real one, and an inhibitor of free speech and free action by zealots with a mindset out of tune with our age, or even the previous age. For those with religious beliefs and those without, freedom of speech and expression must be allowed on equal footing for all.

  1.4  It has been argued, notably by Lord Ahmed in the Lords debate on 30 January 2002 that indeed the present blasphemy laws should be withdrawn but replaced with others that will cover all religions. This to us would be worse than leaving the present laws in place. Freedom of speech would be significantly curtailed. The state should not be involved in the minds of religious belief. Our resolution passed in April 2002 at our General Assembly in Sheffield makes our position very clear and by which we stand. The resolution was as follows:

  "That this General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches deplores the threat to bring charges against Joan Bakewell for blasphemy for quoting from `The Love that Dares to Speak its Name' by James Kirkup, and calls upon Her Majesty's Government, the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly to repeal the Blasphemy Laws."


  2.1  While removing the blasphemy laws is clear cut, legislating in the field of outlawing religious hatred is a much more difficult issue. We do not see a necessary connection between the two as suggested in Lord Avebury's Bill, and believe that they should be dealt with separately.

  2.2  Religious hatred is a curse on modern society but as the Lords debate made clear its definition is very problematical and drawing a line between it, and attacks on social customs adopted by different religious groups very difficult to draw. Attacks on differing religious dress is an example of a social custom which comes into this latter category, and is not religious hatred. While a similar provision to that proposed in Lord Avebury's Bill has been in operation in Northern Ireland for some time, we do not feel that its straight adoption in England would produce the same effect nor solve the most intractable issues. While it may be desirable to have a measure that attempts to prevent religious hatred in statute, we find the definition offered in the 2001 and 2002 Bills too simplistic, and if private prosecutions were possible under it then this could lead to results far from the proposer's intentions. Our view is that the Lords Select Committee should undertake or recommend further studies aimed at a closer definition the world "hatred" which needs to be longer term and wider than the present consultation exercise.

21 June 2002

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