March 6, 2008
Following Wednesday’s action by the British House of Lords to abolish all blasphemy laws in the United Kingdom, the American Humanist Association reiterated its longstanding call to remove all such statutes wherever they appear within the United States and its territories. Though few Americans know of their existence, unenforceable blasphemy laws appear on the books in several U.S. states, including Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Wyoming. No such federal laws exist. And in 1952, in Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against blasphemy bans of all sorts.
“Laws prohibiting blasphemy are a relic of the Middle Ages and are blatantly unconstitutional,” declared Mel Lipman, a constitutional lawyer and president of the American Humanist Association. “Blasphemy is a purely religious offense and hence the sole concern of religious organizations and their own members. By contrast, those people without religion, or who have religious beliefs that don’t condemn blasphemy, shouldn’t be affected.”
Ordinary citizens, however, have been affected in America’s past. People who publicly used religious profanity or criticized God, Christ, Christianity or belief in a god were occasionally intimidated or criminally charged. But the last known person actually jailed for this offense, and this offense alone, was Abner Kneeland in 1838. Since then, remaining blasphemy laws have gone essentially unenforced and are now legally unenforceable.
“Unenforceable statutes that remain on the books, especially unconstitutional ones, undermine public respect for the rule of law,” noted Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “Beyond this, the British government has come to realize that the existence of blasphemy laws can hamper a nation’s credibility when it seeks to oppose the enforcement of such laws by nations dominated by political Islam.”
In November Britain protested Sudan’s arrest of a British schoolteacher on a blasphemy charge wherein she was accused of letting her students give the name Muhammad to a class teddy bear. But then it was pointed out that Britain still had blasphemy laws on its own books. This fact limited the impact of that nation’s principled human rights stand–leading the House of Lords to vote 148-87 on Wednesday to abolish its laws against blasphemy and blasphemous libel. The proposed law next goes to the House of Commons, where passage is all but assured. Also this week, the state legislature in Massachusetts began considering a bill to remove its own blasphemy law and related religious prohibitions.
Nonetheless, humanist leaders express criticism that this process has taken so long. “The lack of foresight in this issue is astounding,” stated Fred Edwords, director of communications for the American Humanist Association. “Throughout the twentieth century humanists have pointed out the moral, legal and practical problems with blasphemy laws. Other secularists did so going back even to the nation’s founding. Yet it requires specific extreme examples emerging from the Middle East during today’s global era before enough people realize what a few moments of thought would have readily made clear. This is cause for concern.”
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The American Humanist Association (www.americanhumanist.org) advocates for the rights and viewpoints of humanists. Founded in 1941 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., its work is extended through more than 100 local chapters and affiliates across America.
Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism, affirms our responsibility to lead ethical lives of value to self and humanity.