Scottish Government won’t scrap blasphemy laws

July 7, 2017

Written correspondence from the Cabinet Secretary for Justice to an HSS member shows the Scottish Government have no intention of scrapping Scotland’s blasphemy laws.

The letter from Michael Matheson MSP published below by HSS says:

Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson

The Scottish Government values Scotland’s faith communities and recognises the important role they play in making Scotland the place we want it to be – a safer, stronger and more inclusive society where all can live in peace and realise their potential both as individuals and as members of wider society. Scotland believes in equality for all people – whoever they are, wherever they are from and whatever they believe.

The last recorded prosecution for blasphemy in Scotland occurred in 1843 at the Edinburgh High Court, when a bookseller, Thomas Paterson, was sentenced to fifteen months in prison for selling blasphemous books.

Technically, blasphemy remains an offence under common law. However, it is difficult to say this definitively as the offence has not been prosecuted in Scotland for a very considerable length of time. Provisions within the European Convention on Human Rights may effect the likelihood of any prosecution, but this would ultimately be a decision for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. Matters of criminal prosecution are not for the Scottish Government, but for the Lord Advocate as the head of the prosecution service for Scotland.

The Scottish Government has no plans at this time to formally abolish the offence.

Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson
Scottish Parliament

Following this the Scottish Parliament has been handed a petition seeking to end the countries Blasphemy laws amid fears Scotland is being left behind other parts of the UK and Europe.

The petition states that the law is “archaic and unfathomable” and while not used in modern times send out the wrong message to countries around the world where religious and non-religious minorities face persecution.

The Humanist Society Scotland believe these laws are a badge of shame for Scotland and the country should catch up with our near neighbours. The Society has its own petition for members and supporters to sign which can be found at:

Commenting on the recent developments, HSS Campaigns Manager Fraser Sutherland said,

Scotland is increasingly being left behind other European nations who have scrapped blasphemy laws. These laws were scrapped in England and Wales in 2008, Iceland and Norway in 2015, Malta in 2016 and Denmark in 2017.

While not used in Scotland in modern times, having such laws makes it more difficult to call on other countries to scrap their blasphemy laws where they are used to persecute and even execute individuals. The fact that prosecutions hadn’t happened in a long time didn’t stop other nations from around Europe taking a stand and abolishing these outdated laws.

We support the international Humanist movement in ending all blasphemy laws around the world and will make written submissions to the Scottish Parliament committee who are looking at this matter.

Blasphemy laws have no place in a modern society and the Scottish Parliament should show the same progressive leadership as has been shown in other European nations in recent years.

Fraser Sutherland, Humanist Society Scotland

The recent report, funded by Humanist Society Scotland, on Religion in Scots Law by academics at the University of Glasgow concluded that:

(i) the crime of blasphemy is still a crime in Scotland at common law, and that (ii) the prerequisite for blasphemy, namely a standard of faith acknowledged by law as applying within Scotland is also still on the statute book, by virtue of the Confession of Faith Ratification Act 1690. This 1690 Act has never been repealed, nor may it be argued clearly that it has fallen in desuetude…

…It may be that the common law crime of blasphemy in Scots law could simply be abolished by statute, the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel having been abolished in England and Wales by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.

Humanist Society Scotland has over 15,000 members working for for a fairer, more rational and ethical future. As a registered charity that receives no public funding our work is only possible through our kind members donations and volunteering. To help us in this work please consider joining or donating today.

An image of the letter received from Michael Matheson
Letter from Scottish Government on Blasphemy (personal details of HSS member redacted)

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