A growing number of countries have moved to repeal or abolish their blasphemy laws. UNESCO, in World trends in freedom of expression and media development: regional overview of Western Europe and North America 2014 reported that “In law reform, there has been a trend towards repeal of blasphemy and religious offence laws.” pdf version.
France abolished its blasphemy laws in 1881, except for the Alsace-Moselle region which was part of Germany at the time, and Sweden in 1970. In 1995, Australia abolished and repealed all blasphemy laws at the Federal Level. Since 2008, the United Kingdom in 2008, Norway with Acts in 2009 and 2015, the Netherlands in 2014, Iceland in 2015, Malta, and France (remaining laws in the Alsace-Moselle region) in 2016, and Denmark in 2017, have all repealed their blasphemy laws.
Countries that have abolished or repealed their blasphemy laws are discussed below in chronological order.
The countries that have repealed or abolished blasphemy laws are:
- France 1789, the 1830s, 1881, and 2016
- Sweden 1970
- The United Kingdom 2008
- The Netherlands 2014
- Norway 2009 and 2015
- Iceland 2015
- Malta 2016
- Denmark 2017
In addition, Canada has introduced a Bill to repeal its blasphemy law and New Zealand has signalled its intention to do so.
France 1789, the 1830s, 1881, and 2016
Blasphemy was removed from French law in 1789, reintroduced, revoked again in the 1830s, and definitively removed in July 1881 with the instigation of freedom of the press.
Questions arose, however, regarding the Alsace-Moselle region which was part of Germany from 1871 to 1918. After 1918, this region retained parts of the German legal code and it was thought that the German blasphemy laws might still apply. To remove any doubt, and in response to the Charlie Hebdo attack, the French national Senate repealed the long dormant Alsace-Moselle blasphemy law in October 2016.
The Swedish blasphemy law was abolished in 1970, and there is no current Act prohibiting blasphemy. A general principal developed in Sweden during the 20th Century is that religion must be regarded as a private matter. Sweden had a historic blasphemy law introduced by King Erik XIV in 1563 to specifically protect religion. Similar Acts followed until 1949 when the last Act was repealed and replaced by an Act on “Peace of Faith” which is a milder form of restriction. In 1970, the 1949 Act was repealed and a new Act was introduced on “agitation against a specific group of people”. The new Act focuses on minority groups of a specific “race, skin colour, national or ethnic origin, faith or sexual orientation”. The 1970 Act does not protect religion as such, but the group of people adhering to the religion. Religious faith is now paralleled with the protection of people on the grounds of ethnicity or sexual orientation and the new law has mostly been used in cases concerning agitation in relation to Jews and homosexuals.
The United Kingdom 2008
In 1985, the Law Commission (report No. 145) recommended that the charges of blasphemy and blasphemous Libel be abolished without replacement.
In response to the charging of English school teacher Gillian Gibbons with Blasphemy in the Sudan where she was working in November 2007, for allowing her class of 6-year-old school-children in Khartoum to name a teddy bear Muhammad, the British Parliament abolished the common law charges Blasphemy and Blasphemous Libel with the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.
For more detail see: Historical application of blasphemy charges in the UK and International Law and recommendations.
Netherlands blasphemy law was enacted in the 1930s as a reaction to the Communist Party call for Christmas to be dropped from the list of state holidays! Article 147 provided for up to three months in jail or a fine of the second category (i.e. up to €3,800) for publicly, orally or in writing or depiction, offending religious feelings by scornful blasphemy, and article 429b prohibited displaying blasphemous material at places visible from a public road. The last successful conviction under Article 147 took place in the early 1960s when a student newspaper was fined 100 guilders for satirising the New Testament. In November 2008, Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin expressed the country’s coalition government’s intent to repeal Article 147 but subsequently delayed taking action. A new coalition government was formed after a general election in 2012 and a majority of parliament voted to repeal the blasphemy law in November 2012.
The Blasphemy law was officially repealed on February 1, 2014.
Norway 2009 and 2015
In 2009, parliament voted to remove section 142 of the penal code against blasphemy, but this had not come into force in early 2015 due to delays to updating computer systems used by police and prosecutors.
In February 2015, following the infamous Charlie Hebdo attack in France, Conservative MP Anders B. Werp and Progress Party MP Jan Arild Ellingsen moved to repeal section 142, claiming that it “underpins a perception that religious expressions and symbols are entitled to a special protection” and asserted that “it is time to stand up for freedom of speech, even in religious matters.” This move was endorsed by parliament.
In response to the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Icelandic parliament moved to repeal Iceland’s blasphemy law. The law was repealed by parliament on July 2, 2015.
In 1933 Malta enacted laws against the vilification of religion and immorality that acted as blasphemy laws. Article 163 of Malta’s Criminal Code prohibited vilification of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion, Malta’s religion, with a penalty of one to six months imprisonment. Article 164 prohibited vilification of any cult “tolerated by law” with a penalty of one to three months imprisonment.
Article 338(bb) imposes liability upon anyone who, “even though in a state of intoxication, publicly utters any obscene or indecent words, or makes obscene acts or gestures, or in any other manner not otherwise provided for in this Code, offends against public morality, propriety or decency”. Article 342 provides that: In respect of the contravention under Article 338(bb), where the act consists in uttering blasphemous words or expressions, the minimum punishment to be awarded shall in no case be less than a fine (amenda) of eleven euro and sixty-five cents (11.65) and the maximum punishment may be imprisonment for a term of three months . . . .
In July 2016, the parliament of Malta repealed articles 163 and 164 of the criminal code.
Paragraph 140 of the penal code prohibited blasphemy and made it illegal to “mock legal religions and faiths in Denmark. There have only been two convictions since 1866, in 1938 and in 1946. Since 1946, there have been two charges of blasphemy. A charge was brought to court in 1971 but led to an acquittal. In 2017 a man was charged with blasphemy for posting a video of himself burning the Qu’ran on social media using the name Yes to freedom – no to Islam. A 2012 survey indicated that at that time 66% of Denmark’s population still supported the blasphemy law. Before 2017, the abolition of the blasphemy clause was proposed several times by members of parliament but failed to win a majority vote. In early 2017, the debate on the abolition of the law was renewed and the law was repealed on 2 June 2017 several days before the 2017 charge was due to come to trial.
On 2 June 2017, the Danish Parliament voted to repeal the blasphemy law by a majority of 75 – 27.
On June 6, 2017, Bill C-51, an Act to Amend the Criminal Code, was introduced in the House of Commons by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. The Act would repeal section 296 of the Criminal Code relating to blasphemous libel and various other provisions of the Criminal Code that have been ruled as being or may be unconstitutional.
For more detail on the Canadian law see: Blasphemy Law in other Countries: Canada