This page provides information regarding blasphemy law in selected countries of interest to New Zealand.
Countries that have already repealed their blasphemy laws are found on the Countries that have repealed or abolished blasphemy laws page.
Scroll down to read more and for links to further information.
A growing number of countries have either repealed or abolished their blasphemy laws or are moving to do so.
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 In 1995, Australia abolished and repealed all blasphemy laws at the Federal Level.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Iceland in 2015, Malta and France (remaining laws in the Alsace-Moselle region) in 2016, and Denmark in 2017, have all repealed their blasphemy laws.
Canada introduced a Bill to Parliament on 6 June 2017 to repeal the law of Blasphemous Libel.
For details see Countries that have repealed or abolished blasphemy laws.
Other countries discussed on this page are:
- The United States of America
The United States of America
There are no blasphemy laws at the Federal level and the Supreme Court indicated in 1952 that any prosecution for blasphemy would be a violation of the First Amendment. In the 1952 case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, the U.S. Supreme Court found that:
“the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them. . . . It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine . . . .”
Despite this ruling, six states, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wyoming, retain blasphemy laws.
In 1995, Australia abolished and repealed all blasphemy laws at the Federal Level.
Three states of Australia: New South Wales, South Australia, and Victoria retain the common law but have enacted Crimes Acts. The Commonwealth, the Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory, Queensland, Tasmania, and Western Australia are “Code Jurisdictions” where crimes are defined by criminal codes.
Australian Common Law Jurisdictions
The common law crimes of Blasphemy and Blasphemous Libel are thought to exist under the common law in New South Wales, South Australia, and Victoria but have been seldom used.
New South Wales
The New South Wales Crimes Act 1900 has the following section:
CRIMES ACT 1900 – SECT 574
Prosecutions for blasphemy
574 Prosecutions for blasphemy
No person shall be liable to prosecution in respect of any publication by him or her orally, or otherwise, of words or matter charged as blasphemous, where the same is by way of argument, or statement, and not for the purpose of scoffing or reviling, nor of violating public decency, nor in any manner tending to a breach of the peace.
This section provides some protection against misuse of the common law charges of blasphemy and blasphemous libel.
The 1987 fatwa against Salman Rushdie produced interest in blasphemy law prompting the New South Wales Law Reform Commission to look at the question. Reporting in 1994, the commission concluded that the existing law was unnecessary and discriminatory and could not be extended or corrected so recommended abolition.
The CRIMES ACT 1958 – SECT 469AA allows for the seizure and destruction of any documents that contain a blasphemous libel after a person has been convicted for such publication under the common law.
The Criminal Law Consolidation Act 1935 makes no mention of blasphemy. However, the Criminal Law and Penal Methods Reform Committee referring to the common law stated in 1977 that “today it would seem anachronistic to charge anyone with blasphemous libel.”
Australian Code Jurisdictions
The Australian Law Reform Commission proposed, in 1991, the removal of all references to blasphemy in federal legislation considering such legislation to be incompatible with the constitution. In Australian Commonwealth legislation, the only remaining mention is a law against blasphemy in the registration of a ship which has a blasphemous name designed to protect ships and their crews from attack in foreign countries.
It is thought that the common law charges of blasphemy may still exist in the Northern Territories.
Australian Capital Territory
The Crimes Act 1990 reads:
CRIMES ACT 1900 – SECT 440
Prosecutions for blasphemy
No person shall be liable to prosecution in respect of any publication by him or her, orally or otherwise, of words or matter charged as blasphemous, if the publication is by way of argument, or statement, and not for the purpose of scoffing or reviling, nor of violating public decency, nor in any way tending to a breach of the peace.
Blasphemy law was abolished in Queensland in 1899 with the enactment of the Criminal Code Act 1899 (Qld). Sir Samuel Walker Griffith, who was responsible for the development of the Code, stated that it did not include provisions of English law which were “manifestly obsolete or inapplicable to Australia”. The combination of an absence of any offence of blasphemy in the Code and Section 5 of the Code that abolished common law charges of blasphemy and repealed the Blasphemy Act 1697 eliminated all blasphemy law.
See the Criminal Code Act 1899 (Qld).
In 1913, Western Australia passed the Criminal Code Act Compilation Act 1913 (WA), which was substantially based on the Queensland Code. It abolished blasphemy law through the absence of any offence of blasphemy in the Code and Section 4 of the Code, which essentially mirrors section 5 of the Queensland Code. Section 4 abolished all common law charges of blasphemy and repealed the Blasphemy Act 1697.
The Tasmanian Criminal Code Act 1924 Section 6 abolishes common law charges of blasphemy and blasphemous libel and replaces them with Section 119 that makes blasphemy or blasphemous libel or both a crime but leaves the definition of the crimes to common law. No punishment is mentioned in Section 119.
Criminal Code Act 1924 (No. 69 of 1924) Consolidated as at: 24 Apr 2013
(1) Any person who, by words spoken or intended to be read, wilfully publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of a crime.
(2) The question whether any matter so published is or is not blasphemous is a question of fact.
(3) It is not an offence under this section to express in good faith and in decent language, or to attempt to establish by arguments used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, any opinion whatever upon any religious subject.
(4) No person shall be prosecuted under this section without the consent in writing of the Attorney-General.
Section 119 of the Tasmanian Criminal Code Act 1924 is essentially the same as Section 123 of the New Zealand Crimes Act 1961 but appears to include both blasphemy and blasphemous libel and does not specify the penalty which may (by default) be up to 21 years. Just how a person can “by words spoken … wilfully publish a blasphemous libel” is not clear!
Canadian law states:
Criminal Code R.S.C., 1985, c. C-46
- (1) Every one who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.
(2) It is a question of fact whether or not any matter that is published is a blasphemous libel.
(3) No person shall be convicted of an offence under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject.
A petition to Parliament asking for the blasphemous libel law be repealed was circulated toward the end of 2016 and presented to the Government in December 2016. The Government responded in January 2017, stating that “blasphemous libel, along with numerous other provisions of the Criminal Code, were presently under review by the Minister [of Justice] and her officials”. 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.
Indonesia’s Blasphemy laws and their use is a matter of considerable concern.
This resolution expressed deep concern at the local blasphemy, heresy and religious defamation by-laws, which are open to misuse, and at the 2008 Joint Ministerial Decree prohibiting the dissemination of Ahmadiyya Muslim teachings, and calls on the Indonesian authorities to repeal or revise them.
Read the full resolution.
Amnesty International reported in November 2014:
Indonesian authorities have increasingly made use of a range of oppressive blasphemy laws to imprison individuals for their beliefs, contributing to an intensifying climate of intolerance in the country. Scores of individuals have been imprisoned – some for nothing more than whistling while praying, posting their opinions on Facebook or saying they had received a “revelation from God”.
For Further information on Blasphemy Law see: http://end-blasphemy-laws.org/
Sources: Information presented in this document may be verified from the original sources and by appropriate internet searches.
Compiled by the New Zealand Coalition against Blasphemy Law (NZCABL).