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The Archbishop of York: My Lords, in the light of what the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, has said, perhaps I may attempt to give a definition of “blasphemy” provided in Stephen's Digest of the Criminal Law and adopted by Lord Scarman in a 1979 case which states:

Jesus Christ and the Bible, I submit, are for all Christians and not just for the Church of England. He continued:

There is little doubt that such a definition is unworkable. On that, at least, there should be common agreement. It is more difficult to reach for an understanding that replaces the common law of blasphemy with a law that essentially provides for a protection not exclusively of the Christian faith but of the fabric of society, as the case in December decided.

In the letter to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and I said that it is not our intention to oppose abolition now, as the Government propose, provided—and it is a big proviso—that we can be assured that provisions are in place to afford the necessary protection to individuals and society. The offences against incitement to religious hatred are new on the statute book and have yet to be tested in the courts. So we are not quite sure, and we are still in uncharted waters.

5.45 pm

It is extraordinary that at a time when religion and religious identity have come to dominate global and domestic concerns, parliamentarians seek to stick their heads in the sand by attempting to relegate considerations of religion and faith from matters of public policy to the private sphere. The mover of the motion in the other place seems to assume that religion no longer matters and as such there is no need for the law of blasphemy in a society which he believes is very secular. I want to ask this: where is the spirit of magnanimity which shaped this nation? Perhaps I may employ another analogy. This is akin to saying that because a child is consistently late for school, there is no need to have a clock. Persistent lack of punctuality does not do away with the need for time.

The place of Christianity in the constitutional framework of this country as governed by the Queen in Parliament under God is not in question, but some Members of the other place seem to question that reality. The relationship between the church and the state, reaffirmed by the Government in July in The Governance of Britain, will not continue to provide a context in which people of all faiths and of none can live together in mutual respect in this part of the realm, where again the governance is by the Queen in Parliament under God.

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However, it is apparent from the debate in the Commons on 9 January that a number of those calling for the repeal of these offences misunderstand both what the existing law is intended to achieve and the extent to which, in doing so, it protects society against civil strife. That is what it is all about. A recent High Court decision made it clear again that the law works against civil strife.

Finally, I am compelled to comment on the inherent link between the

mentioned in the recent judgment, and the nature of that fabric, which has been formed through the operation of the Christian faith in this land. Of late, the Government and others have concerned themselves in trying to discover what it means to be British and what the essential elements of Britishness might be. While we may agree that virtues such as fair play, kindness and decency are part of the nation’s make-up, do they qualify as those things which make us quintessentially British?

It is my belief that such virtues and those associated with them which form the fabric of our society have been woven through a period of more than 1,500 years of the Christian faith operating in and upon our society. The Christian faith has woven the very fabric of our society just as the oceans around this island have shaped the contours of our geographical identity. While it is of course true to say that the virtues of kindness to our neighbours, fair play and common decency are not unique to the Christian faith, just as they are not unique to Britain, it is equally true to say that these virtues have become embedded into our social fabric and heritage as a result of the Christian faith and its influence on society. Without wishing to appear syncretistic, I say that these virtues are found in all other faiths, but the background against which they have been shaped has been quintessentially a very Christian understanding.

It was the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of England who wrote of the way in which the Christian faith played a major socialising and civilising role by uniting the English and conferring nationhood on them, turning this land from a nation of warring tribes into one of united purpose. That is why it is particularly important that the Government should provide clarity over precisely why the common law offences are being abolished and what the implications of their removal are for the position of the Christian religion as by law and statute established.

We may go on to a lot more conversation and discussion on this, but I come to my concluding remarks. The common law offence of blasphemy could be said to serve the four following ends: the protection of society in the sense that it is important that religion, or at least the Christian religion, be treated with respect; the protection of public order; the protection of the bonds that hold society together in a more general sense; and signalling the fact that the Christian religion holds a special place within the social and constitutional fabric of the nation. Were

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the current offence to be abolished, no other single offence could clearly achieve all these ends. What are the Government doing to ensure that they protect them?

I finish by saying that the protection of society is achieved by ensuring that the Christian religion is treated with respect and by signalling the fact that the Christian religion holds a special place in the social and constitutional fabric of the nation governed by the Queen in Parliament under God as understood by the Church of England by law established. How are we going to guard this? I shall listen eagerly to the Minister to see whether we are given further assurances.

I greatly respect the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, because he has been a trenchant defender of human rights, but, nevertheless, I hope we shall see off his amendment. Like a gigantic Christmas tree it has attracted discordant baubles—that is, other offences—that have nothing to do with the law of blasphemy. If nothing else, your Lordships’ House must resist it for the sake of keeping in play the issue of protection of places of worship raised by Section 2 of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860. Social strife must be avoided.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, I oppose government Amendment No. 144B, together with Amendments Nos. 145 and 148.

The Minister, in a beguiling manner, led us to believe that the government amendment is a mere tidying up and that repealing the blasphemy law is not a measure for descending into a secular state. We have heard the history of blasphemy from my noble friend Lord Onslow; we have heard the history of the attempts of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, to get the blasphemy law repealed; and I would like now quickly to give the history of the amendment. It is not as it seems.

The amendment was not in the original Bill. Some 70 MPs were led by Dr Evan Harris, who sent us an e-mail today giving the history of what happened in the other place. He wrote:

At the end of the covering note, which was received by me on my computer—I am sure many other noble Lords received it as well—he said:

Your Lordships will be relieved to know that I am not going to read through it all. But, the Minister having said that she does not believe that this is directed towards secularisation of the state, perhaps I may read from the critique. The letter from the most reverend Primates stated that abolition is not a sign of secularisation. Dr Evan Harris said in response:

I rest my case.

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The Government have been reactive to a proposition by the secularists and are trying to beguile us into saying, “Everything is going to be all right. It is nothing at all”. I am afraid—I do not like to say this because I am a member of the church—that I believe the Church of England has been duped.

As many will remember, a recent census found that 72 per cent of the UK population identified themselves as Christians. Following these figures, even the Guardian newspaper admitted on 28 February 2003 that:

Amendment No. 144B sweeps that view of the public aside and can only undermine social cohesion in our increasingly fragmented society.

I remind your Lordships that the Coronation Oath, the Monarch as defender of the faith, the establishment of the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, together with the blasphemy law, constitute an explicit denial that Britain is a secular state.

As I have said before in debates on this issue, evidence for that is all around us. Parliament begins each day with prayer. National events are marked by church commemoration services or memorial services. State-funded church schools throughout the country provide a high quality education and are much sought after by parents who do not profess any faith but understand that the values that are present in those schools are the values they wish their children to aspire to.

It is essential that we step back and put this issue in its true perspective. Of course there are people who want to see the establishment of Britain as a secular state, and they are certainly vocal. For them, abolishing blasphemy law is an important step in that direction. I have already referred to how that happened. When the Government yielded to demands for repeal, they believed that abandoning the blasphemy law would not give us a secular constitution overnight, but there is no doubt that it paves the way for a much greater assault on our Christian inheritance. That is how it is seen by many people who do not know anything about the history of the blasphemy law, about the work of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, or about the workings of Parliament, but who have written to us by the letter-load. They believe that once something like this is pulled away, the whole edifice will collapse.

I wholly accept that there are Christians who do not agree with me. They argue that it would be better if they saw a more liberal approach. However, abolishing the blasphemy law does not demonstrate neutrality; rather, it contributes to a wider campaign for the adoption of a secular constitution, which, despite what the most reverend Primate said, would actually be hostile to religion. There is no neutral ground here. Every society has some cherished beliefs that it protects in law. The Government are about to remove blasphemy law at the same time as they are increasingly adopting hate-speech laws, which are, in a sense, a form of replacement.

The effect of Amendment No. 144B would be to legalise the most extreme and profane blasphemy. A bona fide expression of opposition to Christianity has not met the legal criteria of blasphemy for centuries.

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The offence requires the publishing of contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous and/or ludicrous material relating to God, Christ, the Bible or the formularies of the Church of England—as quoted from Lord Scarman. It extends to cover Christian beliefs beyond the confines of the Church of England, despite what has been said, as shown by the 2007 High Court decision concerning the decision on “Jerry Springer — The Opera”. That same judgment also affirms that the blasphemy law is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, as demonstrated by the 1996 Wingrove case. Notwithstanding those points, the High Court found that the blasphemy law could not be used against “Jerry Springer — The Opera” because the performances and broadcasts were protected by the Theatres Act 1968 and the Broadcasting Act 1990. However, in what I think noble Lords will agree is a most unusual move, the judgment has been strongly criticised in a 2008 Criminal Law Week critique of the decision, which says:

The editor goes on to show that those Acts provide protection against obscenity prosecutions but do not concern blasphemy or blasphemous libel.

Let us be clear. The amendment before us proposes to legalise the most intense and abusive attacks on Christ, who is the central figure in our history. As the Bible records, God has exalted Him to the highest place and given Him a name beyond every other name. The fundamental question is this: should we abolish Christian beliefs and replace them with secular beliefs? As long as there has been a country called England it has been a Christian country, publicly acknowledging the one true God. Over the centuries the Christian world view has given us individual liberty and parliamentary democracy. Christians have been at the forefront of humanitarian endeavours; we need only call to mind Wilberforce, Shaftesbury and Josephine Butler. Noble Lords may cry “freedom” in support of Amendment No. 144B, but I urge them to pause and consider that the freedom we have today was nurtured by Christian principles and continues to be maintained and guarded by them. I urge noble Lords to oppose Amendment No. 144B.

6 pm

Lord Davies of Coity: The amendment has been tabled rather late in the passage of the Bill. Although I cannot quarrel with what the Minister said about the blasphemy Act and its history, those arguments could have been advanced when the Bill was first proposed—I wonder why they were not.

I agree that the content of the Act remains and may be dormant or in disrepute, as was described by the Minister, but I am concerned not so much with the content of the Act as with the abolishing of it and the perception, perhaps suspicion, that will be generated as a result. I recall a dormant clause in another Act concerned with promoting homosexuality in schools. The Act had not been applied, but when we went to abolish the relevant schedule, mayhem broke out. I wonder whether we should not leave the Act as it is, as

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I think was the Government’s intention when they framed the Bill—otherwise, they would have put in the clause then. They are now doing it at a late stage, perhaps because of what the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, has said.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: I support the amendment, although in so doing I respect greatly the deep sincerity and total commitment with which the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, spoke. It is not a question of seeking to remove something from statute that has any real significance or life at the moment. If I felt that it had, I may well have taken a different approach. It is a part of the law that has essentially fallen into desuetude. It begs the question, therefore, whether one should allow it to clutter the statute book and the concept of our common law.

If I am wrong, and it is still a live and relevant law, one has to look very carefully at the situation. There are many old laws that never end in prosecution because the practices that they condemn do not occur, or occur perhaps only once every half-century. That is not the situation here. I have read within the past few weeks The God Delusion by Professor Dawkins. I ask noble Lords to listen to the following passage. The author speaks of the God that we as Christians worship and states that He is,

If that law counts for anything at all, it is clear that it will encompass a comment of that nature. I do not suggest for a moment that the learned professor, who is professor of philosophical studies at Oxford, should be prosecuted, but if one prosecuted people for expressions such as those, thousands of persons would be prosecuted year in, year out.

I do not for, a second reason, believe that it is right for the law to remain as it is, and applaud the amendment for this reason: I can remember some 30 years ago some excellent programmes on television on a Sunday night, when various propositions of immense weight and substance were debated in a jury/courtroom format. I remember Lord Hailsham appearing on behalf of those who supported the existence of God. After a brilliant cross-examination and a splendid address to the jury, his party carried the day. I cannot remember who the acting judge was, but he asked Lord Hailsham, “Do you ask for costs?”. Lord Hailsham, bouncing up and down like an electrified blancmange, as was his wont, said, “No, my Lord, my client does not require costs”. May I suggest that the second and most profound reason here is that the good Lord does not require this defence? I do not know what my forebears, many of whom were non-conformist ministers, would say of that. Perhaps I shall have to meet them on the Day of Judgment, but I suggest that I will have far graver things to worry about on that particular occasion.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: The presence of a number of right reverend Prelates this evening should not fill your Lordships with a sense that we are not interested in the rest of the Bill, because we have been watching it very carefully as it has grown and contracted.

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I would have been in my place last week if I had not had a heavy cold. Perhaps I should declare an interest as a member of that Select Committee, with the noble Lords, Lord Avebury and Lord Clarke, and others whom I see here, which met under the eagle and twinkling eye of our chairman, the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross.

I shall provide a little background from these Benches. The Archbishops’ letter has been referred to by both the Minister and, briefly, by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, with all the humility he could muster as one of the authors. A limited timescale was involved—we are not griping about that—and therefore a limited consultation. There was fairly comprehensive consultation, but not everybody could be consulted—that is a game that we all know in modern life: running any organisation. For example, his Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster was consulted; hence, the letter that emerged.

Part of our work on the Select Committee was to take evidence from the other faiths. It is interesting to note that the Muslims were keen on the retention of a blasphemy law, but that the Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists were not. Those were the groups that came to us; I make no pretence to speak for all members of those faiths.

The Archbishops were quite clear that they would not oppose repeal. It has been said already by a few speakers, but it has also been misunderstood outside this place. But they had three reservations. The first was that the process had been tacked on to an already complex Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, too, has drawn attention to that, and perhaps put the knife in a bit, with some justification. Secondly, the new religious hatred law has not had enough time to be tested, which is a very understandable caution to be registered at this stage. They were also concerned, as has been expressed by some speakers, about the possible secularising perception. I am glad that the most reverend Primate, the Archbishop of York, referred to the census, because it is frequently forgotten. The assurances that the Minister has given will obviously be important, but we may need to hear a little more on that front—40 per cent of the population went to a carol service of some sort or another last Christmas, which is not generally appreciated in public comment. One of the nice things about becoming a bishop is that you do not have to go to as many carol services as a parish priest.

I now turn to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. We find most of it acceptable except subsection (2)(d), which repeals Section 2 of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860. We cannot accept that amendment unless and until something comparable and more comprehensive is put forward: on that, we are quite adamant. In any case, the argument about absence of prosecutions may suggest the success of the law and not necessarily argue against it.

We have heard several histories of blasphemy. Let me add my own. I do not want to compete with the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, but here is mine. It is a Greek word that comes from ancient Greek society and is defined as,

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It entered the Latin Bible. Jerome was responsible at the end of the 4th century. He did not like using Greek words, and that is part of the beauty of his Latin text, but on this particular occasion he was stumped and so blasphemia became Latinised. That is how it eventually entered Middle English.

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