This page provides information regarding blasphemy law in selected countries. The countries selected are of interest to New Zealand law or are included because they have repealed their blasphemy laws.
Scroll down to read more and for links to further information.
Countries featured on this page are:
- United States of America
- United Kingdom
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.
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.
Blasphemy law was abolished in 1970.
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 November 2007 while she was working in the Sudan, for allowing her class of 6-year-old school children in Khartoum to name a teddy bear Muhammad, the British parliament abolished 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.
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 endorced by parliament.
The Blasphemy law was officially repealed on February 1, 2014.
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.
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.
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).