On 8 July 2008, section 79 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act came into force, abolishing the criminal offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel in England and Wales. This was a massive victory for Humanists UK, which had campaigned against the blasphemy laws for over a century, and worked in support of the amendment that led to abolition through Parliament.
As part of this campaign, Humanists UK briefed Members of Parliament on the compelling need for abolition, worked closely on the drafting of the amendment with its proposers Evan Harris MPs and Lord Avebury, and encouraged over 1,000 people to contact their MP to support abolition.
In the years leading up to abolition, there were several attempts to bring prosecutions against individuals in England and Wales, most notably against the BBC Director-General Mark Thompson over screening of Jerry Springer – The Opera. The writer of the opera, Stewart Lee, became a patron of Humanists UK.
Since 2008, Humanists UK has continued to campaign against blasphemy laws internationally, becoming a founding member in 2015 of the End Blasphemy Laws campaign, led by the International Humanist and Ethical Union and European Humanist Federation, and supporting campaigns to abolish blasphemy restrictions in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In the past four years, five countries have abolished their blasphemy laws, with Canada, New Zealand, and the Republic of Ireland in the process of doing so.
Humanists UK’s Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented, ‘The abolition of the blasphemy laws in England and Wales was a large and hard-fought victory, not just for Humanists UK, but for human rights in general. It was not possible for the UK to move forward in promoting human rights internationally, especially in the 13 countries where such laws still carry the death penalty, while blasphemy remained on our statute books at home.’
‘Blasphemy laws are a violation of the human right to freedom of expression. They prevent legitimate and necessary criticism of religious beliefs, leaders, and institutions, and in extreme cases legitimise vigilante violence and state persecution of the non-religious and religious minority groups.
‘Such laws remain in place in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is urgent that the Scottish and UK Governments and politicians in Northern Ireland take heed of the note to abolish those laws, too, and act accordingly at the soonest opportunity.’
At Humanists UK, we want a tolerant world where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work helps people be happier and more fulfilled, and by bringing non-religious people together we help them develop their own views and an understanding of the world around them.