Scottish blasphemy law repealed following humanist campaign

March 11, 2021

Today members of Scottish Parliament voted to pass the Hate Crimes and Public Order (Scotland) Act which (amongst other things) repeals Scotland’s common law offense of “blasphemy”. 

Humanist Society Scotland has been at the forefront of the campaign to repeal Scotland’s blasphemy law since we brought the issue to public attention in 2016 when we published a report into the influence of religion in Scots Law, and became a coalition partner of the End Blasphemy Laws Campaign.  

Fraser Sutherland, Chief Executive of Humanist Society Scotland, said:

Fraser Sutherland

The importance of the passage of the Act, and with it the repeal of Scotland’s common law offence of blasphemy, will resonate with humanists both in Scotland and around the world. This has been a long standing campaign of the Society and part of a global effort to rid the world of blasphemy laws in every country, and we work very closely with our humanist compatriots across the world to achieve this. Let us not forget our current humanist of the year – Mubarak Bala (the president of the Nigerian Humanists) – has been arbitrarily detained for over 300 days under accusations of ‘blasphemy‘ relating to a social media post. The fight goes on.

Fraser Sutherland, Humanist Society Scotland

Although the last successful prosecution for “blasphemy” in Scotland was in 1843 – leading some to questioned the necessity for the law’s repeal – it has long been argued by victims of blasphemy allegations that the repeal of so-called “dead letter” laws is essential as it “sends a clear signal to the global family of nations that “blasphemy” laws contravene the human rights to freedom of thought and freedom of expression and should be repealed.” Humanist Society Scotland successfully pushed for the Scottish parliament to repeal the offence by gathering public support through a petition, by submitting evidence to the Parliament on how blasphemy laws are used around the world to persecute Humanists and marginalized faith groups, and by arranging peaceful protests. 

The Hate Crimes and Public Order (Scotland) Act has been a controversial piece of legislation, and the Society has been very active during the consultation process, working alongside other organisations and Government to create legislation that protects those at risk of hate crime, whilst safeguarding freedom of expression. We led the call for a number of successful amendments to the Bill including dropping the section of the Bill that would have criminalised insulting religious beliefs under provisions aimed at curbing the stirring up of hatred, and removing the specific sections in the draft bill that targeted theatres and the ownership of ‘inflammatory material.’  In addition a higher threshold for an offence to have been committed was introduced after we coordinated a joint letter from artists, writers and human rights advocates that laid out our concerns on the draft bill and the impact it could have on freedom of expression in the Arts and in wider society.  

Welcoming the amendments in February 2021, Fraser Sutherland said:

The changes made to the Hate Crime Bill today will help ensure that artistic freedom is protected and theatre censorship ruled out. More amendments are still to be decided next week which include protecting the right to criticise, satirise and cause offense against religion which we strongly recommend are passed to protect freedom of expression.

Chief Executive of Humanists International, Gary McLelland, commented:

The passage into law of the Hate Crimes and Public Order (Scotland) Act makes Scotland the tenth nation to repeal its blasphemy laws since the launch of the End Blasphemy Laws Campaign in 2015. I salute the dedication of Humanist Society Scotland in their work to realise the repeal of blasphemy in Scotland. Scotland has sent a strong signal here to the rest of the world that so-called “blasphemy laws” are wrong and should be repealed. We echo this message, and re-issue our call for an end to all blasphemy laws around the world.

Humanist Society Scotland now calls upon the remaining 68 countries across the world that still have blasphemy laws on their books to follow Scotland’s lead and abolish them.

How Humanist Society Scotland’s End Blasphemy Law Campaign was won:

2015 – The International Coalition Against Blasphemy Laws is launched, with Humanist Society Scotland a founding partner.

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 calls on the Scottish Government to show ‘moral leadership’ and scrap Scotland’s Blasphemy law in light of Humanists International’s 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 gathers public support through a petition calling on politicians to scrap the outdated laws.

September 2017 – Humanist Society Scotland submits 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 agrees to write to the Scottish Government to ask them to consider scrapping the law.

December 2018 – Humanist Society Scotland implores 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 the need to end Scotland’s Blasphemy law.

October 2018 Ireland votes in a referendum to scrap Blasphemy law after Humanist Society Scotland distinguished supporter 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 calls the failure to act a ‘stain on Scotland’s Human Rights record’.

December 2018Canada repeals its Blasphemy law.

February 2019 – Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye and Have I Got News For You panellist, and Nick Newman, scriptwriter and cartoonist add their support to the Humanist Society campaign while touring a play they had written to Scotland.

March 2019 – The Church of Scotland add their support to the scrapping of Scotland’s Blasphemy law.

March 2019New Zealand becomes the seventh country since 2015 to scrap its Blasphemy law.

April 2020 – Scottish Government confirm the Hate Crime bill will scrap Scotland’s Blasphemy law.

March 2021 – the Scottish common law offence against blasphemy is officially scrapped.

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