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Blasphemy laws are lifted

By Martin Beckford 10/05/2008

A campaign to repeal the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel, which made it illegal to insult Christianity, was proposed in January by the Liberal Democrat Evan Harris. It was supported by public figures including the author Philip Pullman and the academic Richard Dawkins.  They claimed the little-used laws served no useful purpose, while allowing religious groups to try to censor artists.

Evangelists had tried to prosecute the director-general of the BBC over the controversial musical Jerry Springer – The Opera. MPs voted to support the abolition of blasphemy in an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. This has now received Royal Assent, condemning the laws to history.

Maria Eagle, the junior justice minister, said in the debate: "These offences have now largely fallen into disuse and therefore run the risk of bringing the law into disrepute. "Given that these laws protect only the tenets of the Christian Churches, they would appear to be plainly discriminatory."

But Edward Leigh, a Conservative MP, claimed their abolition would encourage more people to make fun of Christianity. "Getting rid of the blasphemy law sends a message that that is OK, but it is insulting to many Christians," he said.

The last successful prosecution for blasphemy was in 1977, when the publisher of Gay News, Denis Lemon, was given a suspended sentence for printing a poem about a Roman centurion's love for Jesus. The private prosecution had been brought by the campaigner Mary Whitehouse.

Last night, Terry Sanderson, the president of the National Secular Society, said he was "thrilled" that Sir Ian McKellen, the actor, will read the poem in question, The Love That Dares to Speak its Name, at a party to celebrate the abolition of the laws next month.

See also
Blasphemy law in the United Kingdom
Anatomy of blasphemy laws

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