Thursday, October 28, 2010

New Report on Blasphemy in Seven Countries

As noted in Howard Friedman's Religion Clause Blog, an organization called Freedom House has issued a major report titled Policing Belief: The Impact of Blasphemy on Human Rights. The report examines blasphemy in seven countries (Algeria, Egypt, Greece, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Poland) and concludes that such laws severely impact freedom of expression and religion. I haven't yet read the report, but I hope to do so and discuss it in more depth in a future post.

Research Note: Blasphemy in Saskatchewan

As a research note, on January 8, 2009, I sent an inquiry to the Saskatchewan Archives. They responded by stating that a keyword search of their internal database of criminal cases showed no results for "blasphemous", "blasphemy", or "libel."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Research Note: Blasphemy in Nova Scotia

As a research note, on January 8, 2009, I searched the Archives of Nova Scotia's Bosa Nova database for "blasphemy" and "blasphemous" and received no hits. I also corresponded with a researcher at the Archives who had been looking into libel cases in Halifax for the period 1830 to 1920, and he reported finding no cases of blasphemous libel.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Research Note: Blasphemous Libel in Manitoba

On December 4, 2008, I searched the Archives of Manitoba Keystone Descriptive Database for "blasphemy", "blasphemous", and "libel" and turned up no hits. For future researchers in this area, it appears that the Archives contain microfilm-only files that may be worth searching, include Winnipeg Police Court records and Winnipeg Court of Queen's Bench index books and judgment rolls.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"I.L. Honsberger--Long Branch, Ontario--Inquiry re blasphemy laws"

"I.L. Honsberger -- Long Branch, Ontario -- Inquiry re blasphemy laws", RG13-A-2, vol. 262 (1921)

Purely as a reference note, I examined the above file (held by Library and Archives Canada) and found that it contained no useful information regarding Canada's blasphemy laws.

Friday, October 22, 2010

"Separating Church and State Our Tradition"

This column originally appeared in a November, 2006, issue of the The Windsor Star.
Separating church and state our tradition

Jeremy Patrick, Special to The Windsor Star

Published: Monday, November 27, 2006

Is the separation of church and state Canadian? Much has been written recently about the increasing influence of the "religious right" in Stephen Harper's Conservative government. The commentators share a fear that decisions affecting all Canadians are increasingly being made on the basis of religious faith rather than sound public policy. In the United States, controversies over the proper relationship between religion and government are often settled by judicial invocation of the "separation of church and state" reflected in the American Constitution's Establishment Clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

Charter of Rights and Freedoms contains no such clause, however. Although it guarantees an individual's freedom of religion, it does not explicitly forbid the state from endorsing or supporting a particular religion (or religion in general). During the last federal election, Harper stated that "the separation of church and state is an American constitutional doctrine, not part of Canada's legal or political tradition." This simply isn't true. Indeed, Canada has a long history of separating church and state in most contexts.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the government provided extensive privileges to certain religious denominations. The Church of England, for example, received special favouritism in political appointments, the selection of legislative and military chaplains, and marriage laws. In Quebec, the Roman Catholic Church was closely enmeshed with the provincial government. However, these close links between religion and government slowly fell away. The enormous controversy over the Clergy Reserves is a good example of this trend. In the Constitutional Act of 1791, one-seventh of all public land in Upper and Lower Canada was allotted for the support of Protestant clergy. Income from this land, comprising almost two and half million acres, was channeled solely to the Church of England. Not surprisingly, this provoked intense jealously among other religious denominations, and the controversy was seen as a contributing cause to the failed rebellion of 1837. To placate some of the denominations, the Reserves were partially opened to other denominations in 1840. According to the great Canadian religious historian John Moir, even the mere existence of the Reserves in this form led to a 'bitter and noisy' dispute, and after several more years of controversy, the Reserves were finally abolished in 1854.

The disentanglement of religion from government did not occur overnight, it was a gradual process that is still going on today. However, the proclamation of the
Charter in 1982 sped up this process. Although theCharter doesn't have an "Establishment Clause" per se, the courts have used other provisions of the document to reach the same effect. For example, the courts have held that the Federal Sunday Closing Act was unconstitutional because it had a religious purpose; that public schools could not teach Christianity or begin the school day with recitations of the Lord's Prayer or Bible verses; that legislatures cannot begin their meetings with sectarian prayers; and that property disputes between competing factions of a church must be resolved by secular principals.

There are still some remnants of an earlier age, but they appear to be of the relatively minor, non-coercive type of symbolism that in the United States is referred to as "ceremonial deisms." For example, the Canadian national anthem makes reference to a deity, the House of Commons opens with an avowedly non-denominational prayer, and the Queen, formal head of state, is required by English law to be Protestant. Otherwise, with one exception, it's hard to think of any legislation or practices in Canada that would constitute a clear violation of the American Constitution's Establishment Clause as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. The major exception, of course, is the existence of publicly funded religious schools in Ontario. Since Confederation, the Constitution has guaranteed the right of Catholic schools in the province to receive support from the government. This is clearly not a minor "breach" in the "wall" between church and state. However, even this link between church and state is allowed only because it is specifically guaranteed in the Constitution. Otherwise, the
Charter'sguarantee of religious freedom and equality would probably be applied by the courts to invalidate the practice. The recent voluntary decisions to end public support of religious schools in Newfoundland and Quebec are simply further examples of the ongoing trend to separate church and state in Canada.

New controversies always affect how the state views its role vis-a-vis religion. Should Sharia law be enforceable? Can courts force an Orthodox Jewish husband to ask for a religious divorce?These are all questions that will have to be answered in the future. What's clear is that the country's legal and political history demonstrate that the separation of church and state is a Canadian value, not just an American one.

Jeremy Patrick is an Assistant Professor in the American-Canadian joint degree program at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. His article "Church, State, and Charter: Canada's Hidden Establishment Clause" is forthcoming in a comparative law journal.

"Blasphemy Law Should Be Repealed"

The following newspaper column originally appeared in the July 6, 2008, issue of the Toronto Star.

Blasphemy law should be repealed

Toronto Star

July 06, 2008

Jeremy Patrick

Last month, after a long debate, England abolished the ancient common law offence of blasphemous libel. Historically, the crime of blasphemy was committed whenever "contemptuous," "reviling," or "scurrilous" statements were made about God, Jesus Christ or the Church of England.

The offence had been the basis for hundreds of prosecutions throughout the 18th and 19th centuries before falling into a period of dormancy after 1922. Surprisingly, however, the offence was suddenly resurrected as the basis of a successful private prosecution against a gay newspaper in 1977. Subsequent private prosecutions against Salman Rushdie's book
The Satanic Verses in the late 1980s and against the musical Jerry Springer: The Opera just last year were unsuccessful but equally disturbing to modern proponents of free speech.

What most Canadians (even most lawyers) don't realize is that our own Criminal Code also prohibits blasphemous libel and sets a penalty of up to two years in prison. The statute doesn't define what constitutes a blasphemous libel. Instead, it only notes that statements made in "good faith and conveyed in decent language" are exempted.

Although the last known government prosecution was in the 1930s, the law was invoked in private prosecutions at least as late as 1979. Why should we worry about a law that hasn't been used in decades? Dusty old laws can often be perfectly innocuous and even humorous – like the purported Kentucky law that says you have to remove your hat if you come across a cow on the road.

However, obscure, little-known statutes like the blasphemy offence can also serve as a dangerous extension of police or prosecutorial discretion, creating a greater opportunity for threats of enforcement that lead to self-censorship by cautious publishers. And unfortunately, dead laws don't always stay dead when prosecutors are desperate: a statute prohibiting the spreading of "false news" was inserted into the first Criminal Code in 1892, used once in 1907, again 63 years later in 1970, and for the third and final reported time in a high profile conviction (overturned on appeal) of Holocaust-denier Ernst Zundel in the late 1980s.

The Charter, of course, provides strong guarantees of freedom of expression and religion. If the blasphemy law were to be invoked again, it's likely a court would strike it down. Even this should be of limited consolation. The cost and time to mount an effective Charter defence is not insignificant, nor is it perfectly clear that an enterprising Crown attorney couldn't analogize the crime of blasphemous libel to constitutionally valid laws prohibiting anti-religious hate speech.

Of more practical concern, however, is that the existence of the crime of blasphemy in Canadian law could make it harder for the Canadian government to criticize repressive blasphemy prosecutions in countries where free speech is given short shrift. For example, according to the March 6 edition of the
Los Angeles Times: "A funny thing happened in November when Britain launched a righteous protest over Sudan's arrest of a British schoolteacher accused of insulting Islam by letting her students name a class teddy bear Muhammad. But it didn't take long for someone to point out that Downing Street was standing on diplomatic quicksand: Britain itself has a law making blasphemy a crime."

Even if the risk of appearing hypocritical is small, the ongoing existence of a criminal prohibition on blasphemy in the Criminal Code directly conflicts with Canada's public- and self-image as a pluralist, multicultural democracy with a strong commitment to freedom of speech and religion.

The prohibition is simply a sad reminder of a time when disagreeing with mainstream religion and using "uncouth" speech was enough to merit a prison sentence. We should be disappointed that Parliament has let it remain on the statute books for as long as it has.

Jeremy Patrick is a PhD student at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto and has written on blasphemous libel. He welcomes feedback at

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Dutch Politician Prosecuted for Anti-Islam Editorial

The National Post has an article about the trial of Dutch politician Geert Wilders on charges of inciting hatred towards Muslims. Wilders wrote a newspaper column advocating the banning of the Koran and comparing Islam to Nazism. An court ordered the prosecution, but the prosecutors have argued that criticism of a religion is not illegal.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

"Where's Muhammad?" Cartoon Pulled by Washington Post

Editors at the Washington Post pulled a cartoon intended to run in one of last week's issues out of fear it might offend Muslims. The cartoon depicted a busy park full of innocuous activities, with the caption "Where's Muhammad?" The cartoon, of course, is a parody of the famous "Where's Waldo?" series of children's books, and Muhammad does not appear in the cartoon. The Post's ombudsman has written that, in his opinion, the editors should have ran the cartoon because "the cartoon is not a blasphemous attack on the prophet. If anything, it's a powerful and witty endorsement of freedom of expression."

Friday, October 8, 2010

"Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech"

Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood, Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech (Berkeley, CA: Townsend Center for the Humanities, 2009).

In the Fall of 2007, UC-Berkeley held a symposium on the topic "Is Critique Secular?" The results have been published in a slim 153-page volume, with the subtitle of "Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech." The book consists of two main essays, "Free Speech, Blasphemy and Secular Criticism" by Talal Asad, and "Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?" by Saba Mahmood, plus a response by Judith Butler and then replies to Butler's response by Asad and Mahmood.

An important thing to note is that these essays are written in the style of literary criticism, and bear all of the hallmarks of that discipline (anyone who has been to panels at the Modern Language Association will know what I'm talking about): they are jargon-heavy, opaque, discursive, theory-heavy, implicitly critical of the West, and prone to leaving the reader feel like a lot of words have been expended without concrete ideas having been expressed. A subtle implication throughout, one which I think lacks historical foundation, is that "blasphemy" is purely something the secular West does to the religious East as an act of oppression.

Those (very large) caveats aside, there is something interesting in Mahmood's essay, and Butler's response to it, on the nature of the "harm" felt by Muslims in response to the Danish Muhammed cartoons. Briefly put, the argument is that Muslims identify so strongly with the Prophet that insults to him bring about emotions of grief and emotional pain that are difficult to understand and account for in the traditional framework of "blasphemy vs. freedom of speech." As Butler explains it, the cartoons are problematic not because of the offensive ideas inherent within them but because they are seen as attempts to "coerce disbelief" and "any attempt to coerce someone away from his or her belief is an effort to break a relation to a transcendence by which one is sustained." (p. 118)

French Blogger Arrested for Burning Koran

The National Post reports that French authorities have arrested a man on charges of religious hatred for posting a video of himself on the Internet burning a Koran and then urinating on it to put out the flames.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"Ranters Run Amok and Other Adventures in the History of the Law"

Leonard W. Levy, Ranters Run Amok and Other Adventures in the History of the Law (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000).

Before his death in 2006, Leonard Levy was one of America's foremost legal historians. Levy wrote on a variety of topics, and was probably most famous for his books on early American constitutional history. Two of his books (Treason Against God: A History of the Offense of Blasphemy and Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred From Moses to Salman Rushdie) remain the most comprehensive sources on how blasphemy law evolved from its earliest incarnations to the 20th century.

Levy's 2000 book Ranters Run Amok and Other Adventures in the History of the Law is a collection of miscellaneous essays about a variety of topics, including the Fourth Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, Massachusetts Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, and more. Two of the essays may be of interest to blasphemy scholars.

The book's first and longest essay is a nice history of the Ranters, a mid-Seventeenth Century English sect. The Ranters were a motley collection of hedonistic religious seekers who professed a variety of doctrines which mostly seemed to center on the idea that there is no such thing as sin and that, therefore, traditional social expectations relating to chastity, sobriety, frugality, etc., need not be observed. It's not surprising that Ranter practices (public drunkenness, vulgarity, and sexual activity) caused extreme consternation in English society. Although blasphemy was prohibited in England prior to the coming of the Ranters, the group was seen as so obnoxious by Parliament that special blasphemy laws were crafted to target the group's doctrines (pp. 33-34). A full history of blasphemy in England would be incomplete with a discussion of the Ranters, and this essay displays an admirable use of primary sources and engaging prose. I haven't compared whether or how much this essay adds to the information on the Ranters provided in Levy's other books on blasphemy.

Another essay "Harvard University Press, et al., v. A Book", is something of an odd duck. Essentially, it's a chronicle of the struggles Levy had with Harvard University Press and peer reviewers over whether his books on blasphemy were of sufficient quality to be published. Although initial contracts had been signed between Levy and the Press, the Press and its reviewers did not give a greenlight to the manuscript, which led Levy into a long and enervating (to the reader) attempt to change their minds. He wasn't successful, and the books had to be taken elsewhere. Unfortunately, Levy doesn't come across in the best light here, as his constant back-and-forth with editors and peer reviewers makes him seem defensive, bitter, and stubborn. Anyone who has had experience dealing with the peer review process can understand how exasperating it can sometimes be, but this essay would have been better off remaining in a diary than in a collection of essays. The main area of dispute between Levy and his reviewers centered on his work on blasphemy as it relates to the trial of Jesus, so only scholars specifically interested in that particular issue might have any reason to seek out this essay.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Remarks on International Blasphemy Rights Day (2010)

On Thursday, I delivered introductory remarks for the International Blasphemy Rights Day event sponsored by the Centre for Inquiry at the 2010 Atheist Alliance International/Humanist Canada North American Convention. That event, and the convention as a whole, was interesting, educational, and simply a lot of fun. I want to thank the organizers of the event for inviting me and putting on a great show. Here is the draft text of the remarks I gave at the IBRD event:


Thank you all for coming to this special event in recognition of International Blasphemy Rights Day.

Blasphemy is a topic that often lays dormant for years, until suddenly sprouting into public view—a few weeks ago there was the Florida preacher who wanted to burn the Koran, before that the Danish Muhammad cartoons, and going back further the uproar of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. However, blasphemy as a purely religious concept, and the peaceful give-and-take between so-called blasphemous speech and its inevitable condemnation by religious leaders is a phenomenon that fits easily within the free speech tradition of a healthy democratic society.

However, International Blasphemy Rights Day marks the dismay that advocates of freedom of speech, thought, and religion feel all over the globe about the curious persistence of anti-blasphemy legislation.

When I started studying blasphemy laws several years ago, I thought they were true legal anachronisms, obsolete pieces of legislation that stuck around, more or less harmlessly, because legislatures were simply too lazy to repeal them. And sometimes this is true—Canada, for example, still has a law on the books against “blasphemous libel”, but it hasn’t been used successfully by the government since the 1930s.

However, old laws, including old blasphemy laws, don’t always stay dead. England’s common law ban on blasphemy was inert for 55 years before leading to a conviction in the late 1970s, and was invoked (fortunately unsuccessfully) by Muslim activists in the late 1980s against the publishers of Salman Rushdie’s book and then just a few years ago against the stage production Jerry Springer: The Opera . Ireland’s ban remained unused for 141 years before an unsuccessful prosecution against a newspaper in 1996—and just last year, the Irish Parliament passed a new ban on blasphemy. Pakistan provides an even more startling example, as religious minorities are often targeted by domestic blasphemy laws that provide support and rhetorical ammunition to the vigilante-style murder of alleged blasphemers.

Perhaps the greatest threat the West faces, however, is the old wine of blasphemy being poured into a new glass and given a different name. These new laws, although different in concept and focus, often replicate the effects of blasphemy laws. Worse, courts and the general public seem to think they’re necessary if multiculturalism is to flourish. Inevitably, however, they simply cause more conflict as religious groups have a new means to express their frustration over speech they don’t like. In Australia, they’re called “religious vilification” laws and have led to court cases between Christians and Muslims; in Canada, they’re called “religious hate propaganda” laws and have led to magazines being taken in front of human rights commissions; in the United Nations, they’re called “Defamation of Religions” resolutions, and have been the basis of several successful resolutions before the General Assembly.

In other words, there is a global trend of anti-blasphemy laws being given new vigor by being re-packaged. In many countries around the world, the threat of being prosecuted under blasphemy laws or their modern-day counterparts is a real one—and atheists, humanists, and freethinkers can easily become victims.

The main idea I want to leave you with is that the promise of the Enlightenment and Modernity has certainly not yet been fulfilled in this area. Laws against blasphemy remain a genuine threat to the ideals of secularism and free speech, and this is the reality we should recognize on International Blasphemy Rights Day.

"When Multiculturalism Doesn't Work"

The Globe and Mail had this interesting article on Friday on the topic of religious accommodation in Quebec, a province where conflicts between minority religious groups and the government have been especially acute.

Although I'm sympathetic to the argument that religions shouldn't receive "special rights" or "special exemptions" from generally applicable laws, I tend to believe in the doctrine of reasonable accommodation for two main reasons: (1) legislation will always tend to accord with the religious beliefs of the majority of the population (e.g., mainstream Christians in Canada rarely need religious accommodation) and (2) forcing individuals to choose between sincerely held religious beliefs and participation in civic society (schools, employment, etc.) is unconscionable. Thus, I think Sikh police officers should be able to wear turbans on duty, Orthodox Jews should be accorded flexibility on work holidays, etc., assuming of course that in each case no undue hardships would be created.

I would naturally extend this principle to apply to similar sincerely held beliefs of a secular nature (e.g., vegetarianism, pacifism, and others).