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Archbishops' response to Government consultation on blasphemy

Friday 29th February 2008

As the Government publishes its amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to abolish the blasphemy laws, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, have made public their response to the Government's consultation.

In their response the Archbishops make clear their affirmation of the central place of Christianity in British public life and call on the government to explain precisely what the removal of the blasphemy laws does and does not mean for those living out their religious faith in society.

The Archbishops, following consultation with a number of other Christian leaders in England and Wales, restate the Church of England's longstanding position on the blasphemy laws in their joint letter to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government: "Having signalled for more than 20 years that the blasphemy laws could, in the right context, be abolished, the Church is not going to oppose abolition now, provided we can be assured that provisions are in place to afford the necessary protection to individuals and to society". They also register 'reservations' about the method and timing of such a change and call on the Government to be clear as to precisely why the offences are being abolished.

The Archbishops point to four issues that highlight the need for caution before abolishing blasphemy laws. Firstly, it is still too early to be sure how the new offence of incitement to religious hatred will operate in practice. Secondly, the increased significance of issues touching on religious identity has underlined the importance of not lightly changing laws that carry a significant symbolic charge.

Thirdly, as recently as 5th December the High Court underlined the very high threshold that has to be passed for a prosecution to be brought. Fourthly, a number of those calling for the repeal of the offences misunderstand both what the existing law is intended to achieve, as clarified in the High Court decision as the preservation of society from civil strife, and the extent to which, in doing so, it protects particular religious beliefs.

In the letter, the Archbishops emphasise that: "Against that background we in the Church of England have serious reservations about the wisdom of legislating at this moment, and especially as part of a Bill introduced to deal with quite different matters, themselves of significant importance.  In the light of the recent High Court decision, which should make it a good deal harder for prosecutions to be brought in all but the most compelling circumstances, it is not clear that there is a pressing need for repeal until there has been more time to assess the impact of the offence of incitement to religious hatred."

They call on the Government to be clear as to precisely why the offences are being abolished and what the implications are for the position of the Christian religion - in relation to both the State and society more generally. "At a time of continuing debate about the nature of our society and its values, this change needs to be seen for what it is, namely the removal of what has long been recognised as unsatisfactory and not very workable offences in circumstances in which scurrilous attacks on the Christian religion no longer threaten the fabric of society. It should not be capable of interpretation as a secularising move, or as a general licence to attack or insult religious beliefs and believers.

"The place of Christianity in the constitutional framework of our country, governed as it is by the Queen, in Parliament, under God, is not in question in the current debate. The relationship between Church and State, reaffirmed by the Government last July in The Governance of Britain, will continue to provide a context in which people of all faiths and none can live together in mutual respect in this part of the Realm," the Archbishops say.

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