Religious Minorities

Blasphemy Laws: An Embarrassing Anachronism That Must Go

  Rob Boston

Religious freedom includes the right to celebrate faith, and many people (and sometimes governments) do that regularly. The flip side is that religious freedom also includes the right to criticize faith, and it’s here that some governments are having problems.

According to the American Humanist Association, blasphemy remains a crime in more than 80 countries. Men and women have been imprisoned, fined, tortured and even executed for the offense.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, a blogger was released from prison last week after serving a 10-year sentence for criticizing religious leaders and promoting progressive interpretations of Islam.

Raif Badawi was arrested in 2012 and charged with “insulting Islam,” apostasy and other offenses. He was convicted and originally sentenced to seven years in prison, but the penalty was later increased to 10. Badawi was also given a large fine and sentenced to a public flogging of 1,000 lashes. He was whipped 50 times, but the rest of the lashing was suspended after an international outcry.

Badawi’s family suffered as well, His wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their children had to flee Saudi Arabia after her life was threatened. They eventually won asylum in Canada. She now lives in Quebec and has spent the past decade advocating for her husband’s release.

Blasphemy laws ought to be viewed as relics of bad days gone by. In America, they were recognized as a problem by the founders. As President John Adams put it: “I think such laws a great embarrassment, great obstructions to the improvement of the human mind.” (There hasn’t been an attempted prosecution for blasphemy in the U.S. since 1894 – and a court dismissed that case.)

Many European nations have removed blasphemy statutes from the books, but they remain a problem in other parts of the world. Earlier this month, Congress passed a large appropriations bill that includes a provision calling on the U.S. Department of State to prioritize the abolition of blasphemy laws around the world. It includes support for countries that want to remove blasphemy from their criminal codes.

Let’s hope the nations that still punish blasphemy take up the State Department’s offer. Blasphemy laws are reminders of a time when the government took it upon itself to act as a defender of the faith, and church leaders wielded the power to punish anyone who offended them. They’re an anachronism, and it’s time to toss them into the dustbin of history.

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The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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