February 2019 Church & State Magazine - February 2019

Banishing Blasphemy: Laws That Punish People For Criticizing Religion Are Collapsing. But In Some Countries, Saying Negative Things About Faith Can Endanger Your Life.

  Rob Boston

An Indonesian woman finds herself enmeshed in a particularly cruel legal dilemma: She has been accused of blasphemy on the basis of an offhand remark about the volume of a local mosque’s call to prayer.

The woman, Meiliana, is a Buddhist who, like many people in Indonesia, goes by just one name. As a religious minority in a country that is about 87 percent Muslim, Meiliana had always found her rights respected. That changed after a neighbor in her community of Tanjung Balai reported to authorities that Meiliana had complained about the volume of a mosque’s speakers and said she’d like to see it lowered. Meiliana disputed that, claiming that she had merely remarked that the volume seemed louder than in the past; she says she made no request that it be turned down.

Nevertheless, Meiliana was hauled before a court, tried and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Her lawyer told Al Jazeera last year that Meiliana is inconsolable.

“She’s surprised that her case ever went to trial,” the lawyer, Sibarani, said.

Meiliana’s case features some unusual facts. But her situation is not un­common. In some parts of the Mus­lim world, allegations of blasphemy are on the upswing.

The trend may be fueled in part by the global reach of social media. In the past, critics of religion relied on magazines or newsletters to spread their views. The reach of such publications was limited. Today, anyone with a computer can upload a YouTube video, send a tweet or make a Facebook posting. And that’s getting some people in trouble.

In 2017, a 30-year-old Pakistani man named Taimoor Raza was sentenced to death for blasphemy on the basis of a Facebook posting. Raza, a member of Pakistan’s Shiite Muslim minority, got into a religious argument on Facebook with a man who turned out to be a counter-terrorism official. During the discussion, Raza was accused of “derogatory acts against the prophet Muhammad.”

A Christian woman in Pakistan, Asia Bibi, was tried for blasphemy last year after allegations that she had insulted Muhammad. Bibi, who was imprisoned for eight years during legal proceedings, was acquitted but has had to go into hiding. In November, The Guardian reported that extremists were going “house to house” to search for Bibi, and that they are determined to kill her.

In 2015, Ashraf Fayadh, a poet of Palestinian origin, was accused of insulting Muhammad and spreading atheism in Saudi Arabia. Fayadh was sentenced to death, but the sentence was later reduced to eight years of imprisonment and 800 lashes.

Westerners sometimes look at such laws as relics or evidence of religious zealotry. While there may be some truth to that, it’s also the case that blasphemy laws have a long lineage in Europe and America. It’s only recently that some have begun to fall – and in other nations they’re actually being enforced.

In Ireland, residents voted decisively to remove blasphemy as a criminal offense from the country’s constitution in an Oct. 27 referendum.  The vote effectively repealed a provision found in Article 40 of the Irish Constitution which stated, “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.” In the referendum, nearly 65 percent of the voters backed removing the word “blasphemous” from the provision.

“[T]here is no room for a provision such as this in our Constitution,” Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan told The Irish Times after the vote. “Ireland is rightly proud of our reputation as a modern, liberal society. The world has watched in recent years as we have taken landmark decisions as a people to change our constitution with regard to some of the deepest personal matters when we voted Yes to marriage equality and to repealing the Eighth Amendment.” (The Eighth Amendment, which outlawed abortion in Ireland, was repealed by voters in May 2018.)

Canadian legislators in December voted to repeal a blasphemy law that had been on the books for more than a century. The law in question, Section 296 of the Canadian Criminal Code, outlawed “blasphemous libel” and threatened a two-year prison sentence for offenders.  

“This is a great day for Canada,” Greg Oliver, president of the Canadian Secular Alliance, said in a press statement. “Progress is best served when all ideas are subject to scrutiny and criticism. Ideas derived from religious belief neither deserve nor require exemption from this principle.”

This is a great day for Canada. Progress is best served when all ideas are subject to scrutiny and criticism. Ideas derived from religious belief neither deserve nor require exemption from this principle.

~ Greg Oliver, president of the Canadian Secular Alliance

New Zealand is also moving to ditch its blasphemy law. Leaders of New Zealand’s coalition government led by the Labour Party announced last year that they will support removing “blasphemous libel” as a criminal offense through legislation known as the Crimes Amendment Bill.

In recent years, officials in Denmark, Iceland and Malta have also moved to get rid of blasphemy laws.

In many Western nations, such laws have been rarely enforced in recent times. In Canada, for example, there hadn’t been an attempt to use the law since 1927. But critics of such legislation argued that as long as the provisions remained on the books, they were a threat.

There have been occasional efforts to reactivate the laws. In Ireland, for example, comedian Stephen Fry found himself under investigation in 2017 for comments he had made criticizing God during a televised interview two years earlier.

Fry, an outspoken atheist, was asked by an interviewer what he would say if he came face to face with God. Fry replied, “Bone cancer in children – what’s that about? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?” He later referred to God as an “utter maniac.”

The interview was popular online, but apparently not everyone who saw it was pleased. In 2017, a man went to a local police station and lodged a formal complaint against Fry, which Irish police began investigating. The matter was soon dropped; but had he been found guilty, Fry could have been fined 21,000 euros (about $24,000).

Last year Patsy McGarry, a writer with The Irish Times, reported that in 1995 an Irish resident named John Corway lodged three complaints against Irish publications over articles and cartoons he said were blasphemous. Corway asserted he had “suffered offence and outrage by reason of the insult, ridicule and contempt shown towards the sacrament of the Eucharist as a result of the publication of the matter complained of herein and I am aware of other persons having also so suffered.” Corway unsuccessfully pursued the case all the way to Ireland’s highest court.  

McGarry reported that the last successful prosecution for blasphemy in Ireland is believed to have occurred in 1703 when a Unitarian minister named Thomas Emlyn was fined 1,000 pounds for denying the Trinity.

In England and Wales, blasphemy laws were done away with in 2008. However, blasphemy laws remain on the books in Scotland and Northern Ireland, although they haven’t been enforced since the 19th century.

Other European nations retain blasphemy statutes. Most are dormant, but that’s not always the case. In Spain, an actor named Willy Toledo was arrested last year for posting insulting comments about God and the Virgin Mary on Facebook in July 2017, reported El País news­paper.  Spanish law curbs criticism of religion and ideologies, holding that no one may engage in “publicly disparaging [another’s] dogmas, beliefs, rites or ceremonies.” (The same law also makes it illegal to disparage those “who do not profess any religion or belief whatsoever.”)  The Spanish Association of Christian Lawyers filed suit against Toledo, and a judge ruled there are “sufficient reasons” to move ahead with a prosecution.

Foreign Policy magazine reported last month that blasphemy laws have also been invoked recently in Poland, Russia and Austria. About 20 percent of European nations, the magazine noted, “formally criminalize either blasphemy or religious insult.”

The situation in the United States is more complex. While there was never a national blasphemy law in America, several states did have such measures on the books – and some, notably Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Wyoming and Pennsylvania – still do.

Massachusetts, for example, retains a law to this day that threatens fines and imprisonment for anyone “whoever willfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, His creation, government or final judging of the world. … ” (Not surprisingly, it’s a holdover from the state’s Puritan origins.)

Key Founding Fathers were aware of laws like this and considered them dangerous. In 1814, Thomas Jefferson penned a letter to Nicolas Dufief, a book dealer in Philadelphia who had sold Jefferson a tome titled La création du monde. The book contained some passages attacking religion, and Dufief found himself accused of blasphemy for having handled it. Appalled, Jefferson told Dufief, “I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too, as an offence against religion; that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate. Is this then our freedom of religion? And are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy?”

In 1825, Jefferson and John Adams discussed blasphemy in an exchange of letters. Adams made his views clear, writing, “There exists, I believe, throughout the whole Christian world, a law which makes it blasphemy to deny or doubt the divine inspiration of all the books of the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelations. In most countries of Europe it is punished by fire at the stake, or the rack, or the wheel. In England itself it is punished by boring through the tongue with a red-hot poker. … But I cannot enlarge upon this subject, though I have it much at heart. I think such laws a great embarrassment, great obstructions to the improvement of the human mind.”

I think such [blasphemy] laws a great embarrassment, great obstructions to the improvement of the human mind.

~ John Adams

Many government officials didn’t share Adams’ disapproval. In Adams’ home state of Massachusetts, officials went after Abner Kneeland, a former Universalist minister who was accused of blasphemy in 1838 after publishing an article that called Jesus Christ “fable and fiction.” Kneeland’s case, which dragged through the courts for six years, left him bankrupt and destitute. (He also served 60 days in jail.) 

Decades passed before anyone was prosecuted for blasphemy again. A New Jersey businessman who was Jewish was tried for blasphemy in 1882. He was acquitted after it came to light that his accuser was trying to avenge a failed financial deal.  Five years later, though, another New Jersey resident was put on trial for blasphemy and convicted. Charles B. Reynolds, a former minister turned skeptic of religion, was accused of denying the divinity of Jesus in a lecture. In court, he was defended by the noted attorney and agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll.  His vaunted oratorical skills failed to save Reynolds, who was found guilty by a jury and fined $25.

In his book The Second Disestablishment: Church And State In Nineteenth-Century America, Steven K. Green, professor of law at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, and former legal director at Americans United, noted that the last attempt to prosecute blasphemy in the 19th century occurred in 1894 in Kentucky. A man named C.C. Moore published an article in a newspaper poking fun at the immaculate conception of Mary. A Methodist minister complained, and Moore was hauled into court. A local judge dismissed the charge, writing, “In the code of laws of a country enjoying absolute religious freedom there is no place for the common law crime of blasphemy.”

But blasphemy laws left a legacy that proved hard to kill. Publishers of freethought news­papers and magazines often had difficulty getting the U.S. postal service to handle their materials, and books that cast doubt on the tenets of Christianity were routinely censored.

In 1917, a Unitarian minister named Michael X. Mockus gave a lecture in Rumford, Maine, during which he made a number of statements attacking Christian beliefs. Mockus asserted that the Virgin Mary had been impregnated by a man and also said, “There is no truth in the Bible. It is only monkey business. Religion, capitalism, and government are a black army and only profiteer from the poor people.” Mockus was arrested and found guilty by a jury trial. In 1921, the Maine Supreme Court upheld his conviction. (Mockus fled to Mexico rather than serve time in prison.) 

Five years later, radical labor activist Anthony Bimba was arrested by authorities in Massachusetts for remarks he made (in Lithuanian) during a meeting in Brockton. Bimba allegedly said of God, “There is no such thing. Who can prove it? There are still fools enough who believe in God. The priests tell us there is a soul. Why, I have a soul, but that sole is on my shoe.”  Bimba was also accused of making seditious statements, including, “We do not believe in any form of government but the Soviet form and we shall establish the Soviet form of government here. The red flag will fly on the Capitol in Washington, and there will also be one on the Lithuanian Hall in Brockton.”  

A jury acquitted Bimba on the blasphemy charge, but found him guilty of sedition. He was fined $100.

In 1928, Charles Lee Smith, a white supremacist and atheist, rented a storefront in Little Rock, Ark., where he distributed literature attacking religion. A sign in the store window read, “Evolution Is True. The Bible is a Lie. God is a Ghost.” Smith was arrested on a blasphemy charge, but in court, the judge changed the charge to one of distributing “obscene, slanderous, or scurrilous” literature. Smith was found guilty and fined $25, and spent nearly a month in jail. After his release, he repeated the offense and was arrested again. This time he was found guilty of blasphemy, but Smith appealed and the case was dismissed.

Smith was apparently the last person to be tried for blasphemy in the United States, but that didn’t stop threats of prosecution. In his 1955 book The Right To Read, Paul Blanshard notes that a satirical comic book called “Panic” caused a stir in Boston in 1953 for a poem and a drawing that made fun of Christmas. Newsstand dealers were told to remove the comic book or face arrest. Because they complied, there were no prosecutions.

Christian clergy during this period had the power to censor material that offended “decency.” While many books and periodicals were banned for sexual content, others were attacked for containing material critical of religion. Their pressure created a kind of backdoor blasphemy law.

The situation gradually began to change in the 1950s. A key turning point occurred in a 1952 legal case challenging a controversial movie called “The Miracle” made by Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, which told of a peasant woman impregnated by a man she claimed was St. Joseph.  Government officials in New York, bowing to clerical pressure, banned the film. But its American distributor, Joseph Burstyn, fought back in court. New York courts upheld the ban, but on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed it.  Observed Justice Tom C. Clark in Burstyn v. Wilson, “We hold … that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments a state may not ban a film on the basis of a censor’s conclusion that it is ‘sacrilegious.’”

Blasphemy laws in America today are a memory, but there are occasional attempts to revive them. In 1989, a state representative in Louis­iana, Garey Forster, introduced legislation that would make it a misdemeanor for anyone to ridicule “the holy word of God contained in the holy scripture” or “any generally accepted and recognized religion.”

The year before, officials in Escambia County, Fla., passed an ordinance designed to ban the showing of Martin Scorsese’s controversial film “The Last Temptation of Christ.” A federal court quickly declared the measure unconstitutional.

More recently, Pennsylvania’s blasphemy law was invoked in 2007 after a resident named George Kalman attempted to incorporate a film production company called I Choose Hell Productions. State officials denied the moniker, informing Kalman that commercial names “may not contain words that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name.”  Kalman sued, and in 2010 a federal court ruled in Kalman v. Cortes that the Pennsylvania law violated the First Amendment’s religious freedom and free speech provisions.

Today, most discussion about this issue focuses on other countries. In Congress, Democrats and Republicans have joined forces in recent years to call for a worldwide end to all blasphemy laws.  In 2017, U.S. Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.) introduced House Resolution 349, which asks President Donald J. Trump and the U.S. State Dept. to prioritize repealing blasphemy laws.

The resolution argues that such laws are designed to suppress the free speech of non-religious and religious minorities in an attempt to elevate the rights of majority religions and calls on nations to “amend or repeal such laws, as they provide a pretext and impunity for vigilante violence against religious minorities.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) tracks blasphemy laws around the world, noting what types of penalties are applied. According to USCIRF, imprisonment is the most common form of punishment for blasphemy, but three nations – Iran, Pakistan and Mauritania – impose the death penalty. Sudan applies whipping, while “correctional labor” is called for in Kazakhstan. 

USCIRF has celebrated the end of blasphemy laws in some countries. When Canada abolished its law, USCIRF chair Tenzin Dorjee issued a statement that nicely sums up the problem with such statutes: “Laws criminalizing blasphemy are detrimental to religious freedom and other human rights, such as freedom of expression,” Dorjee asserted. “These laws make governments the arbiters of truth and conscience, and are ripe for abuse against dissenting voices and members of religious minorities. USCIRF welcomes this step by the Canadian government and urges all other nations to eliminate these pernicious laws.”

Laws criminalizing blasphemy are detrimental to religious freedom and other human rights, such as freedom of expression. These laws make governments the arbiters of truth and conscience, and are ripe for abuse against dissenting voices and members of religious minorities.

~ Tenzin Dorjee, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom


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