Sunday, April 3, 2011

"Not to Judge But to Save: The Development of the Law of Blasphemy"

I.D. Leigh, Not to Judge But to Save: The Development of the Law of Blasphemy, 8 Cambrian Law Review 56 (1977).

Published shortly after a successful blasphemy prosecution was concluded against James Kirkup's poem "The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name", Leigh's article provides a nice historical analysis of blasphemy in English law from its earliest days as an ecclesiastical offense to its (then) present status as a crime that most observers had thought a relic of a bygone age until its successful use against Kirkup's poem in what became known as the Gay News case. Leigh begins his history with an interesting statement:

"The history of religious persecution in England cannot simply be dismissed as the product of narrow-mindedness and intolerance: to do so is to severely misjudge the men, and indeed the societies, in question. In fact the motives were more complicated (and sincere) than are immediately apparent in a twentieth century where the emotive phrases of 'freedom of belief' and 'freedom of speech' seem so fundamental." (p. 57)

Leigh goes on to talk about why religious persecution takes place, drawing on the works of Frederick Pollock. He then shifts to a discussion of the crime of heresy, and explains how blasphemy evolved from it, before providing a relatively thorough (and occasionally rambling) discussion of how English common law courts interpreted blasphemy beginning in the 1600s.

When evaluating blasphemy's status as a crime, Leigh says that it is a difficult question to determine "[w]hether religious feelings can ever be worth protecting at the cost of another person's liberty[.]" (p. 69) However, Leigh writes that "[e]ven if one decides that the law of blasphemy should not be abolished wholesale, there still remains a substantial need for reform", in part because the English law of blasphemy applied only to criticisms of the Church of England and not other faiths. (p. 69)

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