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Blasphemy Laws Still Exist in the United States

A part of CFIC’s complicated mission(see it at the top of this page) is to provide education and training about secularism.  To understand secularism, is to understand the interaction between law and religion.  While there are a variety of ways that religion indirectly influences law (such as laws which have the same effect as enforcing a religious perspective on all people in the country), the most direct influence is through blasphemy laws.  CFIC encourages an understanding of all blasphemy laws and how they impact their local societies and people around the world.  In this article, CFIC examines blasphemy laws in the USA.  In 2011 Pew Research Center published a study indicating that 59 countries (30%) still have some form of legislation against blasphemy, apostasy or religious defamation.  While nationally the United States has deemed blasphemy laws unconstitutional, some states still have them on the books. In the 1952 case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, the U.S. Supreme Court found that

 “the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them. . . . It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine . . . .”

President Obama, in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, made a statement that “the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs.”

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 It is surprising, after this Supreme Court decision and Obama’s speech, that six  states still have laws against blasphemy.

 

Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wyoming, have laws which reference blasphemy.

For example, Massachusetts, General Laws, Chapter 272, Section 36:

Whoever wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.

It makes one wonder, if these laws are never enforced, why does it matter that they exist? They may rarely be enforced but their existence allows for some cases to be brought forward. A Pennsylvanian filmmaker was turned down in 2007 for a corporate name “I Choose Hell Productions”, based on Pennsylvania’s blasphemy law. States have symbolic power to enforce these laws. It’s a form of moral condemnation as stated by Sarah Barringer Gordon, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Blasphemy laws:

  1. Restrict freedom of speech
  2. Infringe on the right to freedom of religion
  3. Often lead to human rights violations during enforcement
  4. Can incite mass violence
  5. Fail to promote religious harmony which is supposedly the intention

The infamous Danish cartoons became so publicized because of the blasphemy laws attached to them. Raif Badawi faces physical brutality and the death penalty for a blasphemous blog posting. The Charlie Hebdo shooting is mass violence based on perceived blasphemy. There is no proof that blasphemy laws promote harmony, in fact, countries with these laws often have higher levels of religious tension.

 

Where does the United States stand today on blasphemy laws?

The United States has been fighting for religious freedoms and an end to blasphemy laws abroad, and has offered criticism on the intolerance of other cultures. The credibility of these actions will be seen as questionable until they put an end to the hypocrisy.

Both the American Humanist Association and the Centre for Inquiry (USA) are partners in the International Coalition Against Blasphemy Laws (ICABL); the purpose of which is to remove blasphemy laws wherever they exist.

The American Humanist Association, an organization with a long history of opposing blasphemy laws within the USA, has called for a repeal of blasphemy laws:

“Laws prohibiting blasphemy are a relic of the Middle Ages and are blatantly unconstitutional,” declared Mel Lipman, a constitutional lawyer and president of the American Humanist Association. “Blasphemy is a purely religious offense and hence the sole concern of religious organizations and their own members. By contrast, those people without religion, or who have religious beliefs that don’t condemn blasphemy, shouldn’t be affected.”

CFIC approves the work of AHA and other organizations who educate Americans about blasphemy laws in the USA and around the world.  Just as Canadians must direct their gazes to Criminal Code Section 296, so too should the residents of other countries investigate blasphemy regulations which violate the human rights of their citizens. Specifically in the US, this requires investigation of Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wyoming, which today still have problematic laws against blasphemy.

 

This blasphemy update is provided by legal project intern Cassandra Martino with CFIC.