Blasphemy or blasphemous libel is a common law offence in British Law with an unlimited penalty. The present law of blasphemy is based on decisions made by nineteenth century courts. In an 1838 case it was restricted to protect the "tenets and beliefs of the Church of England".
The last man to be sent to prison for blasphemy was John William Gott. In 1922 he was sentenced to nine months' hard labour for comparing Jesus with a circus clown. In Scotland, there has not been a public prosecution since 1843.
During a successful private prosecution in 1977, brought by moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse against the Gay News for publishing a poem, The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name, depicting a centurion's love for Christ, the trial judge said blasphemous libel was committed if a publication about God, Christ, the Christian religion or the Bible used words which were scurrilous, abusive or offensive, which vilified Christianity and might lead to a breach of the peace.
Some British Muslims unsuccessfully called for author Salman Rushdie to be tried under the law after the publication of his controversial novel, The Satanic Verses. But the law only recognises blasphemy against the Church of England.
The offence of blasphemy is one of strict liability. That is to say, intent to commit an act of blasphemy is irrelevant; all that matters is whether the accused did in fact publish the material that is the subject of prosecution. Secondly, the offence protects only the Church of England. If someone allegedly blasphemed Christianity in its Church of England form, that would be a prima facie case for prosecution. But if someone insulted the faith in its other forms, such as Catholicism, it probably would not count.
There have been calls to repeal the legislation but the Church of England usually objects citing the argument; “is nothing sacred any more?” Some recent Acts have limited the scope of blasphemous libel. The 1968 Theatres Act prevents any prosecution for blasphemy in relation to public performances of plays and the 1990 Broadcasting Act prevents any prosecution in relation to broadcasts".
It is a reasonable speculation that as a consequence of the Human Rights Act 1998 (incorporating elements of the European Convention on Human Rights), that any prosecution for blasphemy today, even one which met all the legal criteria, would be likely to fail or, if a conviction were secured, would probably be overturned on appeal (if not by the House of Lords then by the European Court of Human Rights) on grounds either of discrimination, of denial of the right to freedom of expression, or of the absence of certainty. Such an outcome would, in effect, constitute the demise of the law of blasphemy.
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