The cast of Monty Python's Life of Brian.
CJFE applauds legislation introduced by the federal government to repeal the Criminal Code offence of ‘publishing blasphemous libel.’ Canada’s blasphemy law is a threat to free expression with no place in a modern secular society, and its repeal is long overdue.
On Tuesday, June 6, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould introduced Bill C-51 (no relation to the Anti-terrorism Act, 2015, formerly Bill C-51), that includes, among other changes, the repeal of several Criminal Code offences “that are no longer relevant or required today.” In additional to the blasphemy provision, the legislation would repeal the offences of challenging someone to a duel, fraudulently pretending to practise witchcraft, and possessing, printing, distributing or publishing crime comics.
The inclusion of blasphemous libel among these obsolete provisions is appropriate. That our legal system would criminalise speaking ill of God is transparently unconstitutional. As the accompanying ‘Charter Statement’ notes, “the repeal of the prohibition on publishing blasphemous libel (section 296 of the Criminal Code) would enhance freedom of expression protected by section 2(b) as well as section 15(1) equality rights. The offence has its origins in the 17th century, when blasphemy was considered an offence against God.”
CJFE, with Centre for Inquiry Canada, Humanist Canada, BC Humanist Association and other organizations, joined a Parliamentary petition in 2016 calling for the repeal of Canada’s current Blasphemy Law, which garnered over 7,000 signatures.
Many Canadians are not aware that the country even has a law that punishes citizens for statements considered ‘blasphemous.’ Section 296 of Canada’s Criminal Code, however, states that “Every one who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.”
It has been eight decades since the last conviction under Section 296, and 35 years since the last charge of ‘blasphemous libel’ was laid, when a theatre in Sault Ste. Marie was charged for showing the Monty Python film Life of Brian, though the charge was stayed. Why does repealing the law matter if it is never used in the first place and therefore not doing any harm?
1. A blasphemy law likely contravenes Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects freedom of expression and opinion. Even if it doesn’t contravene the Charter, it serves no purpose in Canadian law or a country seeking to be multicultural, inclusive and tolerant.
"Public discourse about religion hardly needs such a law. Most people already are respectful of others’ beliefs, and government agencies, political groups, corporations and educational institutions generally follow their own policies of respect without reference to the law," says Dr. James Linville, Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Lethbridge. "The ending of the blasphemy law is not an attack on any religion or religion in general, but rather is recognition of the significance of Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The right to say nothing controversial is hardly a right at all."
2. Both today and historically, blasphemy laws are used to abuse, suppress and persecute vulnerable minority groups, as well as stifle inconvenient speech and criticisms of oppressive regimes.
"I have examined blasphemy laws in over 50 countries and, regardless of the intentions of their proponents, they universally become tools for repressing minorities and critics. They also choke debate about and within religions. No country that values robust criticism and discussion should have such laws," states Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, and Leimena Institute, and visiting professor at Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic University (UIN) in Indonesia.
3. By having a blasphemy law, even if it is not actively used, authoritarian states around the world can point to Canada in order to defend and justify their own laws that criminalize blasphemy and prosecute citizens for expressing themselves.
In addition to blasphemy charges, media workers and human rights defenders around the world are increasingly subjected to a variety of spurious and arbitrary charges—anti-terror, anti-state, sedition, criminal defamation, misuse of information and communications technologies, and more. These prosecutions are used by authorities for retaliatory purposes, and Canada must not give even a hint that criminal laws can be used as political tools to harass, intimidate and silence critics.
As CJFE’s Executive Director, Tom Henheffer, summarizes, "Canada’s blasphemous libel law is an outrageous relic, a clear violation of Charter rights, and a completely unjustifiable chill on free expression in our country, and it must be scrapped. The fact that it is unlikely to be used is no excuse to have criminal blasphemy on the books in a western democracy. Even worse, Canada’s blasphemous libel law gives a tragic comfort to despotic leaders around the world who use such regulations to imprison free thinkers. It allows them to point to this Canadian statute as a shining justification for their choice forms of oppression."
Repealing Canada’s blasphemy law demonstrates, at home and abroad, Canada’s commitment to the value of free speech for all. CJFE applauds the government for introducing this legislation.