Yesterday Iceland abolished its law against blasphemy, following a campaign by the country’s Pirate Party (Píratar) launched in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack. The Althing, Iceland’s parliament, repealed Article 125 of the General Penal Code, which prohibited anyone ‘mocking or insulting the dogmas or worship of a lawfully existing religious community’.
The Pirate Party holds three of sixty-three seats in the Althing, although opinion polls now suggest that the party has become Iceland’s most popular, routinely polling above 30%. The bill they forwarded in the spring argued:
‘Freedom of expression is one of the cornerstones of democracy. It is fundamental to a free society that people should be able to express themselves without fear of punishment, whether from the authorities or from other people.’
And writing on their website in response to yesterday’s decision, the party celebrated a significant development for ‘humorists and all the friends of freedom of expression’.
Iceland’s blasphemy law was enacted in 1940. The bill to abolish it was apparently officially embraced by the Church of Iceland, whose Bishop’s Office echoed the perspective of the Pirate Party, stating ‘any legislative powers limiting freedom of expression in this way is at variance with modern-day attitudes towards human rights’.
Around 55% of Icelanders consider themselves to be religious; and of these, almost 74% identify with the Lutheran Church of Iceland, while another 12% identify with other Christian denominations. In contrast to the official line of the Church of Iceland, the move to abolish the blasphemy law has been criticised by the country’s Roman Catholic church, and by its Fíladelfía Pentecostal church in Reykjavik.
Attempts to enforce the blasphemy law in Iceland occurred in 1983, when the editor of the magazine Spegillinn was charged with blasphemy and distributing pornography, sentenced to pay a fine, and the magazine pulled from circulation; in 1997, when the television comedy show Spaugstofan was investigated for its Easter edition; and in 2010, when the sale of a beer called ‘Heilagan papa’ (‘Holy Pope’) was briefly prohibited.
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Across much of Europe, blasphemy laws either no longer exist, or else are rarely enforced. Theoretically they can still carry prison sentences of up to five years, but where prosecutions are made, they typically result only in fines. Most countries – Iceland included – have instead enacted legislation against hate speech.
The United Kingdom’s blasphemy law only applied to attacks against the Christian faith. The last prosecution for blasphemy in England was Whitehouse v. Lemon in 1977, when for publishing James Kirkup’s poem ‘The Love that Dares to Speak its Name’ in Gay News, editor Denis Lemon was fined and given a nine-month suspended sentence. The last prison term handed out in England for the offence was given to John William Gott in 1921. Meanwhile the last prosecution for blasphemy in Scotland came in 1843.
The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, an Act of the UK Parliament, wrought changes to the criminal justice system predominantly in England and Wales. It abolished the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel. However blasphemous libel still exists as an offence in Northern Ireland, Canada (where the last prosecution came in 1936), New Zealand, and some parts of Australia.
While the blasphemous libel law in the Republic of Ireland had effectively become obsolete, in 2009 the country passed a contentious Defamation Act which prohibits the ‘publication or utterance of blasphemous matter’ pertaining to all religions.
In France the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, passed in August 1789, did away with the concept of blasphemy. Briefly restored during the Bourbon Restoration, all remnants of any law against blasphemy were removed by the Law on the Freedom of the Press of 29 July 1881 – which was itself inspired by Article 11 of the Declaration. The Alsace-Moselle region of France remains an exception, as part of a German criminal code of 1871 persists prohibiting blasphemy against God.
Blasphemy laws, sometimes framed as laws against ‘religious insult’, still exist in some form in Germany – where a prosecution occurred as recently as 2006, against a man who was distributing rolls of toilet paper which he had stamped with the words ‘Koran, the Holy Koran’ – and Austria, Switzerland, Poland, Czech Republic, Croatia, and Ukraine; in Greece pertaining to the Greek Orthodox Church, with a prosecution made in 2003 which was subsequently overturned; in Italy, where the offence is legally punishable only by a fine; and in Denmark and Finland too, despite their effective obsolescence and several attempts towards abolition.
Spain has what amounts to a blasphemy law, which was utilised in 2012 against artist Javier Krahe on the basis of a documentary, shot thirty-four years earlier, which allegedly depicts him cooking a crucifix. Krahe was eventually acquitted.
In August 2013 – in a gesture which many in Europe related to the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of members of Pussy Riot, for staging and videoing a brief performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour – Russia made a federal crime the ‘offending of believers’ religious sensibilities’, while also strengthening the law covering sacrilegious acts against Church property and paraphernalia. Sometimes depicted as Russia’s ‘anti-blasphemy law’, the emphasis is on public actions rather than other forms of expression. In theory, it covers all religions.
Across the early twentieth century in the United States, blasphemy laws were abolished as the sense grew that they violated the Constitution. The First Amendment states, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’. Subsequently there is no law against blasphemy at the federal level, nor even a law against hate speech, the legality of which has been consistently defended. However, some states maintain statutes against blasphemy. The last conviction for blasphemy in the United States occurred in 1928, against the atheist activist Charles Lee Smith.
The Netherlands officially abolished its blasphemy law on 1 February 2014; and Norway for all intents and purposes back in 2009, though there was an attempt to clarify its abolition earlier this year in response to the Charlie Hebdo shooting. Norway last tried someone for blasphemy in 1933, when author Arnulf Overland gave a speech entitled ‘Kristendommen – den tiende landeplage’ (‘Christianity – the tenth plague’). He was acquitted; and the last person sentenced for blasphemy in Norway was in 1912, with the issuance of a fine.