An urgent letter from the National Secular Society:
We have been working closely with our Honorary Associate Dr Evan Harris MP, who has identified an opportunity to challenge the blasphemy law in the House of Commons.
On Wednesday, 9 January, Dr Harris will table as an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. Below is a letter we have been working on with him which will appear in the Daily Telegraph signed by a large number of other Honorary Associates and prominent supporters of the NSS as well as some other worthy names from a religious and other spheres.
The letter itself makes the case forcibly:
In the light of the widespread outrage at the conviction of the British teacher for blasphemy in Sudan over the name of a teddy bear we believe it is now time to repeal our own blasphemy law.
The ancient common law of blasphemous libel purports to protect beliefs rather than people or communities. Most religious commentators are of the view that the Almighty does not need the “protection” of such a law. We are representatives of religious, secular, legal and artistic opinion in this country and share the view that the blasphemy offence serves no useful purpose. Yet it allows small partisan organisations or well-funded individuals to try to censor broadcasters like the BBC and to intimidate small theatres, the printed media and book publishers.
Far from protecting public order — for which other laws are more suited — it actually damages social cohesion. It is discriminatory in that it only covers attacks on Christianity and Church of England tenets and thus engenders an expectation among other religions that their sensibilities should be also protected by the criminal law (as with the attempt to charge Salman Rushdie) and a sense of grievance among minority religions that they do not benefit from their own version of such a law.
As the Law Commission acknowledged as far back as 1985, when they recommended repeal, it is uncertain in scope, lack of intention is no defence and yet it is unlimited in penalty. This, together with its chilling effect on free expression and its discriminatory impact, leaves it in clear breach of human rights law and in the end no one is ever likely to be convicted under it.
The Church of England no longer opposes its abolition and the Government has given no principled reason to defend its retention. We call upon MPs to support the amendment proposed by Dr Evan Harris, Frank Dobson and David Wilshire tomorrow during the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill Report stage proceedings and for the Government — which rightly criticises countries like Sudan for their blasphemy laws — to give it a fair wind.
If you support the abolition of blasphemy laws, we urge you please to write immediately to your MP, preferably by email, explaining you would like them to support Dr Harris’s amendment on Wednesday and add in your own words why you think this is important. You could perhaps use some of the ideas in the above letter, but please do not reproduce them all.
It is best if you can to contact your MP by email – you can find out details if you don’t know them from this website: They work for you. This allows you to write to the correct MP by putting in your postcode. Whatever method you use to contact your MP, it is essential to include your name and full address.
If for any reason you would prefer to write by letter, you can send it by fax by phoning 020 7219 3000 and asking for the MPs office and requesting a fax number. Alternatively you could write to them at House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA, but in view of the urgency we would urge you to use email or fax if possible.
The NSS has been fighting for the abolition of blasphemy for the whole of its 140 year history. We have been working with Dr Harris on this important issue for some weeks including over the seasonal break assisting with research and soliciting the support of many influential individuals. We know you will want to add your support.
Please act straight away, there is very little time.
The fruits of our efforts will not be clear for some considerable time as the Bill has to go through several readings in both Houses of Parliament, but we will keep you informed of its progress through Newsline. We are most grateful for your support.
UPDATE:(8 Jan) The above letter appears in today’s Telegraph, with these signatories:
Philip Pullman, Rt Rev Lord Harries of Pentregarth, Ricky Gervais, Nicholas Hytner, Shami Chakrabarti, Professor Richard Dawkins, Rt Rev Lord Carey of Clifton, Professor A.C. Grayling, Sir Jonathan Miller, David Starkey, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, Stewart Lee, Michael Cashman, Joan Smith, Lady D’Souza, Peter Tatchell, Lisa Appignanesi, Hanif Kureishi, Lord Desai, Roger Smith and Hari Kunzru