Saturday, January 12, 2008

UK set to abolish offence of blasphemy

The UK is set to abolish the ancient law of blasphemy under a proposed amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill.

The amendment, tabled by Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, has received cross party support, and has the backing of a number of bishops, including Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Bill would effectively abolish existing legal protections for Anglican Christianity.

Lord Carey argues that the existing legal protections for Anglican Christianity are outdated and should be abolished. The proposal is supported by a number of writers, academics, campaigners and comedians.

The move comes in the wake of the diplomatic row over Sudan's jailing of a British teacher who blasphemed against Islam. Gillian Gibbons, a British teacher in the Sudan, was jailed after allowing schoolchildren to name a teddybear after the prophet Mohammed. She was later pardoned after diplomatic protests from Britain.

Frank Dobson, a former Labour cabinet minister, and David Wilshire, a Conservative backbencher are also sponsoring the amendment.

As well as Lord Carey, they are supported by figures including Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former Bishop of Oxford, in a letter to the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday.

Other signatories include Philip Pullman, the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, Ricky Gervais, the comedian who created the BBC comedy The Office and Richard Dawkins, the Oxford academic and atheist and Nick Hytner the director of the National Theatre.

They argue that the blasphemy law "purports to protect beliefs rather than people or communities".

"Most religious commentators are of the view that the Almighty does not need the 'protection' of such a law," it continues.

The signatories also argue that the current law is discriminatory in that it "only covers attacks on Christianity and Church of England tenets and thus engenders an expectation among other religions that their sensibilities should be also protected by the criminal law and a sense of grievance among minority religions that they do not benefit from their own version of such a law."

In Ireland the Constitution under article 40 prohibits blasphemy. However, the Supreme Court ruled in 2000, in the case of Corway v Independent, that the offence was "too vague" to be prosecuted; thus the law is effectively a dead letter.

Meanwhile, the Labour Government, in a major shift in policy, has said that it will no longer fund new faith schools. In remarks in front of a select House of Commons committee, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls, said: "It is not the policy of the Government nor my department to expand the number of faith schools. We're not leading a drive for more faith schools."

The new policy marks a total change of policy from that of Mr Blair and former Education Secretary Ruth Kelly. Mr Blair said that he wanted faith groups to come forward to sponsor his flagship academies – set up to replace struggling inner-city schools – as faith schools had better exam results than the national average.
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