Holyrood handed petition to scrap blasphemy laws

A petition lodged with MSPs says Scotland's blasphemy laws are 'archaic and unfathomable'. Picture: Jayne Wright
A petition lodged with MSPs says Scotland's blasphemy laws are 'archaic and unfathomable'. Picture: Jayne Wright
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A new Holyrood bid to scrap Scotland’s centuries old laws on blasphemy has been launched amid fears the country is being left behind the rest of the UK and other European nations.

A petition lodged with MSPs says the laws are “archaic and unfathomable” at a time when non-religious minorities face persecution around the world.

Stephen Fry: Called God a 'maniac'. Picture: Getty Images

Stephen Fry: Called God a 'maniac'. Picture: Getty Images

Scotland’s blasphemy laws were last used almost two centuries ago to convict Edinburgh bookseller Thomas Paterson.

The Humanist Society of Scotland says the laws are a “badge of shame” and backed the calls for the Scottish Government to scrap them. But the move has met with a frosty reception from the Catholic church which sees it as a further attempt to remove religion from Scots “civic and political” life.

Mark McCabe has lodged a petition at Holyrood which says the crimes of blasphemy and heresy should be axed in the same way as sedition was de-scheduled by the Scottish Parliament in 2010.

“It seems unfathomable that Scotland still has this archaic crime when the rest of Great Britain has abolished it, and all that theoretically stands between a person and prosecution is the good grace of the police and prosecutors,” he said.

The blasphemy law in Scotland includes denying the existence of God or uttering “impious or profane things” about God, according to the petition. It also wants to see heresy wiped from the statute book, along with profanity, which includes working or “engaging in amusement” on Sundays.

Some experts believe the laws are so irrelevant in the modern context that blasphemy is no longer a crime.

Campaigners feel that while the laws stand, Scotland is in no position to lobby for human rights in other countries, such as Pakistan or Indonesia, where blasphemy can still lead to execution or jail. The case of Facebook user Taimoor Raza, 30, has been taken up by campaigners. He was handed a death sentence by an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan after making a post that made “derogatory” remarks about the Prophet Muhammad and his family.

Fraser Sutherland, Campaigns Manager at Humanist Society Scotland, 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.

“We support the international Humanist movement in ending all blasphemy laws around the world.

“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.”

It was only a few weeks ago that police in Ireland dropped a blasphemy case against Stephen Fry after the TV star stated that God was “clearly a maniac” in an interview.

Medical Student Thomas Aikenhead, who lived in Edinburgh, was the last person executed for blasphemy in Britain at the age of 20. He was hanged in the capital in 1697 after friends reported him to the authorities over comments made in casual conversation.

A spokeswoman for the Catholic Church said: “The last known prosecution for blasphemy in Scotland took place in 1843.

Evidently, there is little concern in wider society that people of any faith, or none, could face prosecution under this historic law; rather it appears to be a rather cynical attempt to further remove any vestige of religion from civic and political life.”