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RELIGIOUS CRIMINAL OFFENCES

 

In general criminal behaviour which has a religious dimension is dealt with under the ordinary criminal law. For example a Burglar who breaks into a Church and steals the Chalices would be prosecuted for the crime of Burglary. The fact that his offence also involved Sacrilege of a Church would not involve any separate charge. There are however some specifically religious offences namely. Blasphemy and Blasphemous Libel which were discussed in a 2003 House of Lords Report    Offences involving disorder in Churches or Cemeteries   and     Religiously Aggravated Offences.   In 2006 a new offence of  “Incitement to Religious Hatred was created..

 

Blasphemy and Blasphemous Libel

Blasphemy was a long established offence in English Common Law and in many other countries as explained in a Brief History of Blasphemy., it was abolished in England and Wales on the 8th July 2008 by s79 Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 following the case of Green v Thompson [2007] EWHC 2785 (Admin) which was an unsuccessful attempt to bring a private prosecution against the BBC for broadcasting "Jerry Springer the Opera", therefore the following information is now only of historical relevance.

 

In England, for understandable historical reasons, the Blasphemy law applied to protection of the Christian Religion in its Anglican (Church of England) form. The crime of Blasphemy consisted of


the publication (orally or, for libel, in writing) of matter which vilifies or is contemptuous of or which denies the truth of the Christian religion or the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer and which is couched in indecent, scurrilous or offensive terms likely to shock and outrage the feelings of the general body of Christian believers”.

 

Being a common law offence Blasphemy was only triable on indictment, ie before a jury, in the Crown Court. The maximum penalty being imprisonment for life and/or a fine.

 

Prosecutions for blasphemy have been rare in the twentieth century. In Bowman v Secular Society Ltd [1917] AC 406 the House of Lords held that the gist of the crime of Blasphemy was not the words that were used rather it was

 

their manner, their violence or ribaldry or, more fully stated, for their tendency to endanger the peace then and there, to deprave public morality generally, to shake the fabric of society, and to be a cause of civil strife”
 

In R v. Gott [1922] 16 Cr.App.R. 87. a publisher was successfully prosecuted for publishing a pamphlet that compared Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem with ‘a circus clown on a donkey’. There were no further prosecutions until 1977 and the case of Whitehouse v Gay News Ltd and Lemon [1979] 2 WLR 281 7 This was a private prosecution brought against the editor and publisher of gay newspaper Gay News for publishing a poem which described acts of sodomy and fellatio involving the body of Christ and suggested that Christ had been involved in promiscuous homosexual activity during his lifetime. The Court of Appeal upheld the conviction but revoked the sentences of imprisonment on the editor remarking that it did not consider it an appropriate case for a prison sentence

In the case of Chief Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate, ex parte Choudhury [1991] 1 QB 429 an attempt was made to bring a private prosecution for Blasphemy against the author Salman Rushdie following the publication of his book “The Satanic Verses”. It was argued that the crime of Blasphemy should be extended by the courts to cover Blasphemy against all religions including, with regard to Rushdie, Blasphemy against the Muslim religion. The Court of Appeal however was not prepared to extend an offence for which there had only been two prosecutions in 70 years and which the Law Commission in 1985 had recommended should be abolished (Law Com. No. 145). The court also noted a real practical difficulty in extending Blasphemy to cover every religion.

 

'Since the only mental element in the offence is the intention to publish the words complained of, there would be a serious risk that the words might, unknown to the author, scandalise and outrage some sect or religion'

 

In 1989 the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) denied a classification to the video of ‘Visions of Ecstasy’ published by Redemption films on the ground that it was blasphemous. The film told the story of St Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth century nun who experienced powerful ecstatic visions of Jesus. Nigel Wingrove of Redemption Films made an application to the European Court of Human Rights claiming that the ban breached Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  and was disproportionate. The Court however dismissed the claim and accepted that the criminal law of Blasphemy, as it was applied in England, did not infringe the right to freedom of expression under Article 10.    Wingrove v UK (1996) 24 EHRR


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