New Zealand must repeal all sections of the law that criminalise blasphemy or blasphemous libel in order to promote freedom of expression, religion, and belief, and to remove conflict with:
- the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights 1948, Articles 18 and 19,
- the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1976 Articles 18 and 19,
- the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 sections 13, 14, and 15, and
- the New Zealand Human Rights Act 1993 section 21
(see International/Legal Recommendations for further details).
It is essential that New Zealand repeal section 123 subsections (1) and (2) of the Crimes Act 1961 to maintain international credibility and to set an example in international forums as a promoter of Human Rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion and belief; and to encourage other countries to repeal and abolish draconian blasphemy laws. While blasphemy laws remain law in New Zealand, New Zealand will have no credibility in international forums regarding freedom of religion and belief or freedom of expression.
While repeal of New Zealand’s law of Blasphemous Libel is imperative, there is good reason for concern that a simple repeal of all four subsections of section 123 of the Crimes Act 1961 will lead some, who feel that they are offended or that their religion has been insulted or defamed, to seek redress under other sections of the law, and that overzealous police and prosecutors acting on complaints will seek to use other laws to prosecute perceived offenders. This occurred in England in 2008, shortly after the abolition of the blasphemy laws in England, with the use of the Crime and Disorder Act to prevent freedom of expression regarding religion. There is ongoing concern that some religious organisations will attempt to use whatever sections of the law they can to prevent any critical discussion of their religion.
Because subsections (3) and (4) of section 123 of the New Zealand Crimes Act 1961 were deliberately included in the Act, as they were in the original New Zealand Criminal Code Act 1893, to provide protection against frivolous, vexatious, or overzealous use of the law, it is important to retain these protections.
Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) requires that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”. It is very important to protect these rights.
New Zealand has ratified the (ICCPR) and is consequently bound to protect both the right to freedom of religion or belief and to protect freedom of expression with respect to all discussion regarding religion or belief.
The present section 123 subsections (3) and (4) and examples from the Australia Capital Territory and New South Wales (see International/The Law in Other Countries) indicate that a Criminal Code or a Crimes Act can be used to protect against the misuse and abuse of the law.
It is therefore recommended that:
- all of section 123 of the New Zealand Crimes Act 1961 be replaced with the following wording or similar to retain the present protections provided by subsections (3) and (4).
Crimes against religion and belief, morality, and public welfare
Religion and belief
123 Discussion of religion or belief not to be punishable in New Zealand
It is not an offence against this Act or any Act of New Zealand to express or to attempt to establish by arguments, satire, comedy, art, cartoons, or by any other means, orally or otherwise, any opinion whatever on any subject relating to religion or belief.
- either all reference to “religion” be removed from the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015, or that the word “religion” be replaced with the words “religion or belief”.