Religious offences

Submission to the House of Lords Select Committee

In response to a call for evidence the following points have been submitted by mediawatch-uk to the Select Committee on Religious Offences. We hope these are helpful as the Committee deliberates on this important matter.


he noble purpose and intention of the law against blasphemy is to protect the sensibilities of Christian believers and sympathisers from gratuitous offence and scurrilous attack, and thereby, to maintain tranquillity and public order.


he law, which is essentially a public order measure, as a matter of right, should be amended to safeguard the sensibilities of the adherents of other major religions.


he successful prosecution of James Kirkup's poem, 'The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name' published by 'Gay News' in 1976, established that this ancient law could be effectively invoked against the publication of intemperate literature and false assertions calculated to cause offence. (We note that this poem, in a challenge to Britain's blasphemy laws, is to be publicly recited on the steps of a central London church on 11 July.)


n recent times the media, film and television in particular, has been responsible for considerable - and continuing - offence by the inclusion in programmes of the scripted use, as expletives, of Holy Names, Jesus and/or Christ, on their own or in combination with obscenities. For Christians this is extremely hurtful and offensive and almost entirely unnecessary, without dramatic integrity or purpose or justifiable in any context. Many people regard this as discriminatory and it would certainly be regarded as such if applied to other widely venerated religious figures.


e draw attention to the BBC's Producers' Guidelines excellent provisions on blasphemy (see Appendix 1 below). In our opinion these were completely disregarded by the transmission of part of James Kirkup's poem in the fourth part of 'Taboo' screened in December last year (see Appendix 2 below).  Without the additional safeguard of the law the very people for whom they were intended can, apparently, disregard the BBC's non-statutory Guidelines.


e believe that the abolition of the existing law relating to religious offences would give rise to an upsurge of gratuitous offence and scurrilous attack. The freedom of religious believers not to have their beliefs intemperately ridiculed and their feelings offended would be so seriously eroded that their basic human rights could be placed in jeopardy. Whilst we accept that the Human Rights Act sets out to secure freedom of expression this freedom is not absolute nor is it without conditions. Freedoms come with responsibilities and both should have equal force in law.


iven that the modern means of social communication are so pervasive any offence is caused to millions of people. A primary objective of the law relating to religious offences should be to prevent the cause of widespread offence by the powerful media. We acknowledge that the Government's draft Communications Bill provides, in Clause 307, safeguards against religious bigotry but we believe that this needs to be buttressed by effective law. We believe that this objective, more than any other, would win broad public support and would promote respect, civility and generally advance human progress.


eligious hatred is an attitude of mind that sometimes finds expression in criminal acts and it is these acts which should be - and are - pursued through the law. A new criminal offence of 'incitement to religious hatred' may prove to be desirable just as 'incitement to racial hatred' has become a necessary buttress against racial discrimination. We believe that blasphemy in the media is a form of gratuitous discrimination that is just as unacceptable. The offence might be defined using other statutes enacted to prevent discrimination as models.

26 June 2002

Appendix 1


Programme makers dealing with religious themes should be aware of what may cause offence. Programme makers and schedulers of international services should consider carefully the varying sensitivities of audiences in different parts of the world. What may be unexceptional in a UK programme may raise strong feelings elsewhere. Advice can often be given by departments dealing with religious programmes in both domestic and international services, or by relevant World Service language sections.

Deep offence will also be caused by profane references or disrespect, whether verbal or visual, directed at deities, scriptures, holy days and rituals which are at the heart of various religions - for example, the Crucifixion, the Gospels, the Koran and the Jewish Sabbath. It is against the Muslim religion to represent the Prophet Mohammed in any shape or form. Language must be used accurately and be consistent in our description of different religions. Use of a term such as "Islamic Fundamentalist" has to pass the test of whether we would talk about Christian or Hindu Fundamentalism.

Particular care should be taken with programmes to be broadcast on the principal holy days of the main religions to ensure that unnecessary offence is not the caused by material that might be more acceptable at other times.

What constitutes blasphemy and how seriously it is viewed, varies within and between different religions and cultures. Blasphemy is a criminal offence in the UK and advice should be sought, through Heads of Department or Commissioning Executives, from Editorial Policy and lawyers in any instance where the possibility of blasphemy may arise.

Appendix 2


n the course of BBC2 TV programme 'Taboo', transmitted 12 December 2001, while the text and the cartoon drawing, published in 'Gay News', were shown on screen, Miss Bakewell said:

"The other institution you criticised at your peril (was) the Christian church. Blasphemy was an offence and still is. In the 1970s a poem, an explicit homosexual fantasy of the centurion taking Christ's body down from the cross, was bound to offend…


James Kirkup's poem 'The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name', pushed what had been a tacit tolerance of blasphemy too far. It was published in 'Gay News' in 1976. Mary Whitehouse took out a private prosecution, the first blasphemy case since 1921"


House of Lords Press Information issued 10 June 2003



he House of Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences today published a detailed analysis of the law relating to religious offences.  The report examines old common law offences, including blasphemy, and statutory offences, like the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act of 1860, and considers whether there is a case for repealing them, leaving them unchanged, or modernising them.  The committee also considered the case for creating an offence of incitement to religious hatred, analogous to the existing offence of incitement to racial hatred.  The new offence would remedy the anomaly that some religions receive protection under race relations legislation while others do not, and would discourage extremists from using the pretext of religion to pursue a racist agenda.  But the committee is concerned about both the potential threat to freedom of expression and the risk that the standards of proof would need to be so demanding under the proposed legislation as to make it a difficult offence to prosecute.

For the full text of the report visit:  (click on Committees and then click on Lords Select Committees.)

Click here for 'Is Nothing Sacred'

Click here for 'The Blatant Blasphemy Corporation'  

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Lords Committee report on Religious Offences

Press Information released on 10 June 2003

The House of Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences today published a detailed analysis of the law relating to religious offences.  Viscount Colville of Culross, who chaired the inquiry said: "After extensive public consultation we have analysed the merits of all the options, but feel it is up to Parliament as a whole to decide how it wants to proceed.  Religions play a vital role in our society and there should be a degree of protection equally available to all faiths, but there is no consensus among us on the precise form that that protection might take.  The introduction of a Bill to deal with any, or all of these issues is likely to run into profound controversy, despite the pressure to take action on incitement to religious hatred."