Section 296 of the Criminal Code makes it an indictable offence for anyone to publish a blasphemous libel. The maximum sentence is a term of imprisonment not to exceed two years. Yes, there have been no prosecutions for about 80 years and I suspect any future prosecution would face a successful Charter challenge. But the law remains in the Criminal Code and to that extent it reflects Canadian public policy.
The Criminal Code doesn’t define the term blasphemous libel, instead leaving it up to the courts to define it. Historically in Canada, the offence applied only to exposing Christianity to ridicule, but there’s no reason to believe the offence couldn’t encompass insults to any religion.
The United Kingdom abolished its blasphemy laws in 2008. The United States has never had such laws. But many other countries have laws making it an offence to publish blasphemous statements. There are some international movements both to abolish blasphemy laws and also to make it an offence to insult any religion. Indeed, there’s a United Nations declaration recommending the institution of such an offence.
Blasphemy laws are particularly odious. According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the “application of these laws has resulted in the jailing of individuals for merely expressing a different religious belief or under false accusations.” The most recent policy brief on the topic issued by the U.S. commission lists 40 people who are serving prison terms following convictions for blasphemy.
As the commission pointed out, blasphemy laws “have been proven to be ripe for abuse and easily manipulated with false accusations.” These laws “encourage extremists to enforce their notion of truth on others” and “blasphemy accusations are frequently used to silence critics or democratic rivals under the guise of enforcing religious piety.”
If we’re to show any solidarity for those who have suffered and continue to be victims of these situations, we must repeal our blasphemy law.
Blasphemy is a victimless crime. That is, of course, unless people believe their deity is capable of having hurt feelings. Nick Cohen, a British writer and author of the informative book on censorship, You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom, asks the question: “Are the delicate deities in question so thin-skinned that their ‘self-esteem’ can only recover if their followers perform human sacrifices and present them with corpses of their critics?” Cohen also ridicules those who support blasphemy laws by referring to the “tender feelings and brittle minds of believers” who suffer “psychic harm . . . from hearing a strongly held view challenged” and feel the need to “mount the barricades against new thoughts that might torment and enrage the faithful.”
Aside from being a victimless crime, blasphemy laws punish people for insulting a concept or an idea. Since when is it a goal of the criminal law to protect concepts or ideologies as opposed to people?
Worse, blasphemy laws have served to punish minorities and thereby violate free-speech rights and freedom of religion. Blasphemy laws therefore serve as a tool to violate human rights, not to enforce them.
So why hasn’t Canada repealed its blasphemy laws? Parliament recently repealed s. 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. That hate speech section was in part a de facto blasphemy law, so why not show our support for free expression and religion as well as minority rights by repealing s. 296 of the Criminal Code?
Yes, such an action would be largely symbolic but it would send a message to Canadians about our core values, in particular that we value free speech over archaic principles protecting ideologies. And how can we justify criticism of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other countries while our own provisions remain part of our criminal law?
It’s puzzling why any nation that believes in human rights would include blasphemy among its laws in 2014.
Alan Shanoff was counsel to Sun Media Corp. for 16 years. He currently is a freelance writer for Sun Media and teaches media law at Humber College. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.