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In an historic break with tradition, the U.K. House of Lords has voted to abolish laws that make it a crime to commit blasphemy against Christianity, report ARTICLE 19 and news reports.

The House of Lords voted 148-87 on 5 March to abolish the centuries-old laws against blasphemy and blasphemous libel.

"While blasphemy laws have long fallen into disuse in England, their continued presence casts a shadow on free expression in the U.K. and sends a signal to other countries that such laws are acceptable," says ARTICLE 19, which has long called for the repeal of blasphemy laws because they limit legitimate criticism of religion.

There have been only four successful prosecutions since 1676 under the laws. Proponents of abolishing the laws argue that the laws are in disuse and have been effectively replaced by the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006, which makes it a crime to incite hatred against any religion.

Talk of abolishing blasphemy has provoked fears of the U.K. moving in a "secular" direction. In a joint letter to the Communities Secretary prior to the vote, the Church of England's archbishops said they had "serious reservations about the wisdom of legislating at this moment." While they would not oppose the abolition of blasphemy, they argued that it should not be seen as a "secularising move" or as a general licence to attack or insult religious beliefs and believers.

The archbishops say it is still too early to be sure how the new offence of incitement to religious hatred will operate in practice and that laws which carry "a significant symbolic charge" should not be changed lightly.

The amendment will go to the House of Commons later this year as part of a larger criminal justice and immigration bill, where it is expected to be passed because of government support.

ARTICLE 19 is now calling on Parliament to repeal the similarly outdated offences of criminal defamation and sedition.

Visit these links:
- BBC:
- Cybercast News Service:
- "The Guardian", "Archbishops question timing of plans to abolish blasphemy laws":
(11 March 2008)

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