Blasphemy laws are quietly vanishing in liberal democracies

Source: The Economist

Despite the abolition of outdated laws, a culture of freedom is failing to take hold

Until last month, a Greek citizen could be jailed for up to two years for “publicly and maliciously blaspheming” against God, against the Greek Orthodox church or “any other permitted religion.” In one of its last acts before losing an election, a leftist government quietly dropped this article as part of a revision of the criminal code.

The law had not fallen into disuse; a man had been sentenced to a ten-month term in 2012 for facetiously comparing a famous monk to a pasta dish. It took him five years to appeal and clear his name. (Short prison terms can generally be bought off in Greece, so the humourist faced little risk of going to jail. But the case stirred strong emotions.)

New Zealand also abolished its virtually dormant blasphemy law in March; it was the seventh democracy to take this step since 2015. In most liberal-minded countries, it is now agreed that outlawing blasphemy, even through mildish and half-forgotten laws, sets a bad example to the states where bans are applied harshly, including the 40 or so which prescribe prison terms and at least five where the penalty can be death.

Scotland and Northern Ireland are now among the few democratic jurisdictions where blasphemy is still punishable. In those places, too, it seems likely that the law will eventually be changed, even though vocal lobbies may drag their feet. Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose MPs prop up the British government, is resisting change.

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