Religion and belief: Contemporary context

In recent years Parliament has responded to public concern about the operation of the blasphemy law – the expression of contempt or ridicule of sacred Christian truths.

Blasphemy: ancient laws

Until modern times blasphemy had been a common law offence, punishable by imprisonment. The last detention was in 1921. There were several alleged, and highly publicised infringements of the law in the 1970s, although no action was taken.

Responding in 1989 to Muslim accusations that the author Salman Rushdie’s novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ was blasphemous, a House of Lords committee ruled that the existing laws related only to crimes against Christianity. Offences against any other faith could not be prosecuted.

There was, however, much public feeling that existing laws could no longer fulfil the needs of a modern, multi-faith society.

In 1997 the European Court of Human Rights declared that British blasphemy law was not contrary to freedom of expression but, in 2002, the Court reversed its ruling on another case.

Religious offences

In May 2002 the House of Lords appointed a select committee to examine the law on religious offences. The report, published in June 2003, found that blasphemy law had become unworkable. 

Although the committee was undecided about what form the protection of faith should take, it believed strongly that a new law should apply to all beliefs.

Parliament was particularly aware of Muslim community concerns, and in 2006 it passed the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, which created the new offence of inciting hatred against a person on grounds of their religion. 

As a result of this new legislation, the old crime of blasphemy was abolished in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act of 2008.

Female Bishops

Another area of controversy had been the exception to equalities legislation that allowed the Church of England not to appoint female bishops.

For some years there was discussion within the Church of England over the possibility of ordaining female bishops. This raised intense feelings on both sides, with some arguing that the church risked being out of step with contemporary society, and others feeling that fundamental religious positions need not reflect secular change. A compromise was put before the Church of England’s governing body, the General Synod, in November 2012, but was rejected. 

In general, Parliament’s role in respect of Church law is quite formal: Parliament signs off new Church laws once they have been passed by the General Synod, but only rarely rejects them. Parliament retains the right to create new laws itself for the Church, but would do so only in exceptional circumstances. 

However, the Church of England General Synod formally adopted legislation which allowed the ordination of female bishops in November 2014. In January 2015, the first Church of England ordained its first female suffragan bishop.

In March 2015, Parliament passed the Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015, which introduced time limited provisions to enable female diocesan bishops to be fast-tracked into the House of Lords as members of the Lords Spiritual.

Page last updated June 2015.

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