Blasphemy is still a crime in English law, though I imagine few now think it should be. A quarter-century has passed since anybody was charged with it, but another determined zealot like Mary Whitehouse might still manage a prosecution. The law holds that Christianity, in effect the Church of England with its secular Head, is the only religion that can be blasphemed, and one still hears arguments in favour of extending the privilege to other religions. So far they have failed: a cause for rejoicing rather than ethnic envy, for the judges, already notoriously capricious in such matters, would have in each case to decide how the law applied to religions of which they knew little or nothing, and of which it could not be said, as it is of Christianity, that they are inseparably 'part of the law itself'. That was the judgment of a Lord Chief Justice in 1676, since when blasphemy has been an offence in common law; the sanction may be asleep but it is not dead. If tempted to believe that it is, one needs to recall the 1976 prosecution of Gay News and the subsequent failure in the House of Lords of an attempt to get rid of it.
LRB 14 January 2002 | PDF Download