The news out of England is that the House of Lords has, in a landslide, voted to do away with Britain's common -- but almost completely irrelevant -- law making blasphemy a crime. People have been talking about doing this for ages, so this is not shocking.
However, I think there is an interesting hole in the Los Angeles Times report on the topic. The context of the debate was Sudan's arrest of a British schoolteacher who allowed her elementary school teachers to name the class teddy bear Muhammad. That was blasphemy, under Sharia law. This led to the latest call to do away with its obscure law.
Thus, we read:
In fact, Parliament has never passed a blasphemy law. It is a common-law crime established centuries ago and clarified by judges in the 19th century to protect the beliefs of the Church of England; citizens may fall afoul if they insult God, Christ, the Christian religion or the Bible in a way that is scurrilous, abusive or offensive, or in a manner that may breach the peace. Attacks on other religions are not covered, prompting many critics to brand the law as discriminatory.
In practice, the law has seldom been used, and in 2006 a new law making it a crime to incite religious hatred was adopted as a more equitable alternative. The last time anyone was imprisoned for blasphemy was in 1922, when a man was convicted after comparing Jesus Christ to a circus clown.
The last successful blasphemy prosecution occurred as a result of a private complaint in 1977 against a gay newspaper for publishing a poem that describes a Roman centurion's homosexual lovemaking with Christ's dead body, and legal analysts say it is doubtful any new prosecution could survive under European human rights laws.
The debate raged over whether ditching the old blasphemy law is another sign of Britain's slide into official, state-mandated secularism. That's an interesting question, but not the most pressing issue at the moment (since the evidence would suggest that secularism or commercial materialism took over a long, long time ago).
The issue the story fails to address is how this decision will clash with Sharia law -- in Britain. What happens, in the nation's unofficial Sharia courts, if a Muslim is accused of a crime of apostasy or blasphemy? Would the state step in to protect her or him?
Meanwhile, under the law against inciting religious hatred, it may be illegal (or dangerous) to stand in a pulpit and preach sermons on why Christianity is true and Islam is false. It may be problematic to teach classes in state universities that apply the principles of textual criticism to the Koran.
However, this raises another question. Is it illegal to preach a sermon saying that Islam is true and Christianity is false? Is anyone opposing the use of tax dollars to fund classes that apply textual criticism to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament?
And while we are at it, what would happen if a gay newspaper in "multicult" Britain published a poem that described homosexual lovemaking with the dead body of, well, Muhammad?
I am not saying that anyone knows precisely how this legal drama will unfold. I am, however, saying that it was strange to write a story about blasphemy -- opening with the Sudan case -- without at least mentioning that the rise of Sharia law is also a rather hot topic at the moment in Britain. In fact, I can't find a mainstream report that even connects these issues.
However, it's rather obvious that I am interested in these topics and believe there is a link.