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Last Updated: Monday, 18 October, 2004, 09:39 GMT 10:39 UK
Blasphemy laws set to be repealed
Home Secretary David Blunkett
David Blunkett believes blasphemy laws will soon be outdated
Britain's ancient blasphemy laws could be repealed when plans for a new offence of incitement to religious hatred are brought forward.

The home secretary is considering the move to see off fears the new law would curtail the freedom to criticise and satirise religions.

There is a good case for removing laws on blasphemy, David Blunkett has said.

The changes were being considered in the "wider context" of the incitement law, a home office spokesman added.

"We are interested in whether the blasphemy laws should be retained, extended or amended in any form.

"As part of the consideration being given to the new offence of incitement to religious hatred, we have been considering the wider context, including the findings of the House of Lords Select Committee," he said.

It will have a high threshold and we envisage that it will only capture a very few cases a year
Home Office

The committee considered a number of religious offences, including the issues of blasphemy and incitement to religious hatred.

It said any prosecution for blasphemy laws was likely to fail or be overturned on appeal because of the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights Act in British law.

This is because blasphemy only offers protection to the Church of England and thus effectively differentiates between different religions as well as curtailing the freedom of expression.

It is intended the offence of inciting religious hatred will close the "unacceptable loophole" that multi-ethnic faith groups are not protected in the same way as Jews or Sikhs are by laws against incitement to racial hatred.

The home office has stressed it would not interfere with legitimate debate, religious activities or the freedom of expression.

Rowan Atkinson
Rowan Atkinson said the law could outlaw jokes about religion
"It will have a high threshold and we envisage that it will only capture a very few cases a year because it prohibits stirring up hatred against people defined by reference to their religious beliefs (not the religion itself), and not simply causing offence or hostility," a spokesman said.

But comedians, such as Rowan Atkinson, have suggested films like Monty Python's Life of Brian would not have been made had the laws been in place at the time.

In 2001 David Blunkett told the Commons human rights committee it was his view that there would come a time when the blasphemy law found its place in history.

For blasphemy to be prosecuted it has to possess a strongly offensive character, but the definition has clearly changed over time as society has altered.

There have been no public prosecutions for blasphemy since 1922.

The only successful private prosecution since then was the case brought by Mary Whitehouse in 1977 against "Gay News" over a poem it printed depicting Christ as a promiscuous homosexual.

No parliamentary time has so far been set aside for the planned incitement law but the home office has said it will be pursued at the earliest opportunity.

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