Gay & Lesbian Humanist Vol
21, No 4, Summer 2002, p 9.
Doc. No. 2002.002
The Gay News case in 1977
was a private prosecution brought by Mrs Mary Whitehouse. The
paper had published a poem by James Kirkup entitled ‘The
Love that Dares to Speak its Name’. The Law Commission description
is: ‘The poem recounted the homosexual fantasies of a Roman
centurion as he removed the body of Christ from the cross, in
which he described in explicit detail acts of sodomy and fellatio
with the body of Christ immediately after His death and ascribed
to him during his lifetime promiscuous homosexual practices with
the Apostles and other men’. The defendants were convicted
by 10 2. On appeal to the House of Lords the conviction was upheld
3 2. The principal points of law established were (1) it was irrelevant
whether the defendants really intended to blaspheme, (2) it was
irrelevant that there was no ‘attack’ on the Christian
I was incensed at this state interference with debate on a vital
matter. Although as a barrister I was required to observe the
law, I decided to break it in this instance. At a 1977 protest
meeting in Brighton I read out Kirkup’s so-called blasphemous
poem. This attracted widespread publicity, but the state took
no steps against me.
In 1985 the Law Commission published a report recommending that
the common law crime of blasphemy be abolished and not replaced.
The impact was marred by the fact that of the five commissioners
two (including the Chairman of the Commission, Mr Justice Ralph
Gibson) dissented. The minority wished to replace the present
law by a new offence modelled on a provision in the Indian Penal
Code which prohibits the deliberate outraging of the religious
feelings of any person. There is no definition of ‘religious’,
but this has caused no difficulty during the century or so for
which the provision has been law in India.
In a lecture I delivered at the Ross McWhirter Foundation’s
Dicey Conference on Religion and the Rule of Law at St Edmund
Hall Oxford on 13 March 1990 I tried to spell out what all this
meant for humanists. I said that humanists are campaigning against
the current use of the human rights concept of freedom of religion
to undermine the democratic ordering of society. Article 9 of
the European Convention on Human Rights, which embodies freedom
of religion, is now taken to mean that individual choices must
be allowed to override the democratic ordering of society if they
are prompted by the teaching of some ‘religion’ or
other. It is also taken to mean that no religious precept must
be challenged by the organs of society. This denies the right
of society to decide that the teachings of a particular religion
or so called religion are anti social, and to combat them. For
example in Britain the state finds itself compelled to finance
the running of exclusively Roman Catholic schools, even though
(as events in Northern Ireland demonstrate) such educational segregation
is clearly against the public interest.
Some religious systems purport to regulate every aspect of life.
Thus a Muslim parent said on the ‘Everyman’ BBC 1
television programme on 28 January 1990 ‘without Islam,
life is meaningless. Islam tells you everything; how to eat; how
to sit, how to stand’. The freedom of religion principle
gives a licence to any actual or purported religious system to
override every aspect of the law and other arrangements laid down
for the individual by the democratic state.
Humanists believe that an unlimited freedom of religion principle,
though having an apparent validity, is in fact dangerous to the
health of society. It licences teaching of falsehoods to children,
brainwashing of adolescent converts, bizarre exceptions to a just
law (such as that requiring the wearing of crash helmets by motor
cyclists), and other anti social practices.
The freedom of religion principle is against the nature of religion
itself. By demanding that all actual or so called religions be
accorded equal respect it runs counter to claims of religious
truth. The Christian religion, for example, insists that it is
the only true faith: ‘No one comes to God except by me’
(John 14.6). The Koran makes similar claims.
The danger continues. Blair recently tried to introduce a law
under which a religious motivation would increase penalties for
civil unrest. I attacked this in a letter the Times published
on 19 November 2001-
The Blair Government’s
Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, introduced on 12 November
2001, punishes religious hatred. This it describes as hatred against
a group of persons ‘defined by reference to religious belief
or lack of religious belief’. The Bill does not define ‘hatred’
or ‘religious belief’, which are both notoriously
inexact. It will be punishable ‘religious hatred’
to criticise a bunch of atheists. Is this really what we want
our laws to do?
The penalty for this newly-invented
thought crime will be imprisonment for up to seven years. That
might be inflicted on a comic who
jeers at so-called religions that chop off a thief’s
hand or stone to death a woman caught in adultery. Is this
Or an earnest do-gooder might be imprisoned for criticising so-called
religions that prevent a desperately ill child being given a blood
transfusion. Again, is that what we want?
I myself am an agnostic, with no desire to defend atheists who
presume to have greater knowledge of the Universe than is given
to mankind. I claim the right to criticise them. Do I really deserve
to be locked up?
The same goes for the multitude of people who endlessly debate
faith, and argue for ever about our place in the cosmos. It is
what humans have done from time immemorial, so far without challenge.
Will Mr Blair kindly get off our backs?
This letter, with similar objections,
appeared to do the trick. Blair was frightened, and dropped his
iniquitous proposal from the Bill. But that is not quite the end
of the story. Somehow there was left behind, and crept on to our
statute book, a provision, in what became Blair’s Anti-terrorism,
Crime and Security Act 2001, which adds greater penalties to various
offences, such as assaults and criminal damage, which are what
it calls ‘religiously aggravated’. This is defined
as prejudicial to a group of persons defined by reference to religious
belief or lack of religious belief. So we are almost back where