End the blasphemy stain on Scotland’s human rights record

November 23, 2018

Humanist Society Scotland have written to Scottish Government Cabinet Secretaries Aileen Campbell and Humza Yousaf to call for Scotland’s common law offence against Blasphemy to be dropped in forthcoming legislation covering Hate Crime.

The letter, published below, calls the retention of the Scots common law offence against Blasphemy “a stain on Scotland’s overall positive Human Rights record.”

Further the letter highlights how members of the Scottish Parliament petitions committee received information from the Government that a consultation, launched last week, would cover this issue. However the recently published consultation document in fact has no question relating to the common law offence.

Gordon MacRae

Commenting on the move Humanist Society Scotland Chief Executive Gordon MacRae said,

“Scotland is one of the last remaining countries in Europe with a Blasphemy law still on its books after Ireland recently voted by referendum to scrap this archaic crime.

“It is disappointing that after positive engagement with the government before the launch of this consultation, including correspondence sent to the Scottish Parliament’s Petitions Committee, the Scottish Government have now backed away from consulting on scrapping Blasphemy.

“There is no rational reason for retaining a law as part of legislation that will bring in new protections against religiously motivated hate crime.”

Text of the letter below:

23rd November 2018

Dear Aileen and Humza,

I welcome your launch last week of a consultation on Scottish Hate Crime Legislation following the Lord Bracadale review. As you know Humanist Society Scotland have inputted our thoughts and feedback throughout the Lord Bracadale review and in the pre-consultation work carried out by the Scottish Government and I would like to thank you for including us in those conversations.

The Society will of course respond in detail to the consultation questions that the government have published and will encourage participation of our members and others too.

I am disappointed however to note a missed opportunity to consult on scrapping Scotland’s common law offence of Blasphemy. This disappointment is compounded by the fact that the convener of the petitions committee of the Scottish Parliament had, based on information provided by the Government, said:

“The Scottish Government confirms that it is engaging with stakeholders on the recommendations of the independent review of hate crime legislation to help to inform the key issues and concerns for inclusion in a public consultation that will be launched in autumn. That includes seeking views on the common law offence of blasphemy and whether there is justification to include relevant proposals relating to the offence in the public consultation.”

We have often lauded how Scottish Ministers have taken a Human Rights approach to policy making, particularly in recent years in equalling rights for, and tackling prejudices against, the LGBT+ community. We were also delighted to meet with the Human Rights Defenders fellows and learn from them and share our experiences of Human Rights advocacy. The retention of Scotland’s common law offence regarding Blasphemy is a stain on this positive human rights record.

You will be aware of the recent cases in Pakistan, notably one involving Asia Bibi, showing the devastating impact Blasphemy laws have on restricting Human Rights. It cannot be the case that a Government which seeks to be a world leader on Human Rights fails to take a simple, but nonetheless symbolic step in promoting Freedom of Thought, Belief and Religion. Blasphemy laws are, by their very nature, the complete antitheses of this Human Right.

There is no wish from any quarter to retain such a common law offence. I would also highlight much of the case law involving Scotland’s Blasphemy law is alarmingly anti-Catholic in nature. Given the updating of Hate Crime legislation will ensure protection against religious hatred there is no arguable need to retain a blasphemy offence either.

The Scottish Government took a commendable and meaningful step in scrapping a common law offence against ‘sodomy’ in 2009 despite this, like Blasphemy today, being a ‘dead letter’ law. The same approach must be taken with regard to Blasphemy and it is our view that this forthcoming legislation on Hate Crime is the best opportunity in which to do so.


Gordon MacRae
Chief Executive
Humanist Society Scotland

Humanist Society Scotland End Blasphemy Law Campaign Timeline

February 2016 – Religion in Scots Law report by academics at University of Glasgow, funded by Humanist Society Scotland, reveals the legal detail and history of the Scottish common law offence of Blasphemy

December 2016 – Humanist Society Scotland call on the Scottish Government to show ‘moral leadership’ and scrap Scotland’s Blasphemy law in light of IHEU’s international report on persecution of Humanists around the world through Blasphemy laws

July 2017 – The Scottish Government’s Justice Secretary responds to correspondence from a Humanist Society Scotland member saying they have “no plans” to scrap the law.

August 2017 – Humanist Society Scotland gather public support through a petition calling on politicians to scrap the outdated laws.

September 2017 – Humanist Society Scotland submit evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Petitions Committee of how Blasphemy laws are used around the world to persecute Humanists and minority faith groups. The Committee agree to write to the Scottish Government to ask them to consider scrapping the law.

December 2018 – Humanist Society Scotland implore MSPs to scrap Scotland’s Blasphemy law at the annual Humanist Yuletide event in the Scottish Parliament.

January 2018 – The Edinburgh Group of Humanist Society Scotland arrange a protest against Blasphemy laws around the world on the spot where student Thomas Aikenhead was hanged for blasphemy in Edinburgh 321 years previously.

March 2018 – UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of Religion and Belief calls for the scrapping of blasphemy laws and states they are not compatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed by the UK in 1968.

March 2018 – Scrapping Scotland’s Blasphemy Law becomes official SNP party policy. 

May 2018 – Scottish Parliament hears from Humanist campaigners on need to end Scotland’s Blasphemy law.

October 2018Ireland votes in a referendum to scrap Blasphemy law after Humanist Society Scotland distinguished support Stephen Fry is investigated by police for comments he made on a TV show.

November 2018 Scottish Government launch consultation on reforming Hate Crime laws which fails to propose to scrap Scotland’s Blasphemy law as suggested by campaigners, Humanist Society Scotland call the failure to act a ‘stain on Scotland’s Human Rights record’. Ministers later say they are ‘listening to views’ on the matter.

Humanist Society Scotland blog post on importance of scrapping Blasphemy law.

Humanist Society Scotland blog post on Hate Crime review and how it impacts atheists, humanists and apostates.

Latest Related Stories

Two police cars parked outside a street in a Scottish city.

Stirring up a storm in a teacup: Police Scotland only investigate nine “stirring up” incidents after first week of hate crime law

Stirring up a storm in a teacup: Police Scotland only investigate nine “stirring up” incidents after first week of hate crime law
View of the debating chamber at Holyrood, with concentric rings of lecterns around a speaker's podium

Hate crime and freedom of speech: Why are the Scottish government and police ignoring our advice on the Rabat Plan?

Hate crime and freedom of speech: Why are the Scottish government and police ignoring our advice on the Rabat Plan?
A large crowd at an LGBT+ pride rally somewhere in the UK, with flags waving above the throng of people.

We submit our views to conversion practices consultation

We submit our views to conversion practices consultation
Fraser Sutherland, CEO of Humanist Society Scotland, addresses a crowd in a blue suit infront of an HSS banner.

Humanist Society Scotland in the media on assisted dying

Humanist Society Scotland in the media on assisted dying