The Strange Afterlife of Blasphemy

On 20th April, Matthew Offord MP asked a written question to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, asking ‘if he will consider bringing forward legislative proposals to reform of the law on blasphemy’.

On 27th April, Luke Hall MP replied, ‘My Department does not have plans to reform the law on blasphemy’.

The exchange raised eyebrows given that it is commonly asserted that blasphemy has been abolished in England and Wales. Norman Doe and I published an article on this entitled ‘The Strange Death of Blasphemy’ As Law and Religion UK tweeted: ‘is there any law of blasphemy in England left to reform?’

However, the assertion that blasphemy has been abolished is actually a bit of a simplification. Section 79 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 abolished ‘blasphemy and blasphemous libel under the common law of England and Wales’ so statutory offences of blasphemy or offences that are blasphemy-like may still exist.

It is also often said that the statutory offence of blasphemy had already been repealed before the 2008 Act. Criminal law textbooks prior to 2008 typically listed blasphemy as one of the few strict liability offences at common law. But this assertion too is a a simplification.

It was only the Blasphemy Act 1697 that was repealed by Criminal Law Act 1967 so other provisions may remain on the statute books which are blasphemy-like.

For instance, section 7 of the Burial Laws Amendment Act 1880 under which it is an offence to bring into contempt Christianity in the context of burial remains on the statute books and is unaffected by the 1967 or 2008 legislation.

There are also several other criminal offences protecting religion. ‘Riotous, violent, or indecent behaviour’ in a church or church yard is an offence under section 2 of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860, for example. And in the twenty-first century, laws have been passed to create religiously aggregated offences and offences of stirring up religious hatred. However, these differ substantially from the abolished common law offences in that they protect believers rather than beliefs.

It remains unclear what the exchange between Offord and Hall referred to but it does underline that offences against and concerning religion do still exist under English law – and, as an article by Mark Hill and I noted (in footnote 99), the language of section 29 means that it did not affect any blasphemy or blasphemy-like offences that are on the statute books.

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