Canada is just a “Royal Assent” away from finally repealing a blasphemy libel law that has been on the books since 1892.
It seems like a radical rule for a modern nation, but this is what Section 296 of the nation’s Criminal Code says:
(1) Every one who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.
(2) It is a question of fact whether or not any matter that is published is a blasphemous libel.
(3) No person shall be convicted of an offence under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject.
Even with that caveat in part 3, the fact remains that a charge of blasphemy could theoretically land you a prison sentence of up to two years.
What constitutes blasphemy? Who knows. Whatever offends you, really, and that’s the problem. One person’s satire is another person’s sacred cow. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.
To be fair, that law hasn’t been successfully used against anyone since 1935. Even when Monty Python’s Life of Brian was released in 1979, the law was invoked, but the charges didn’t go anywhere.
But it’s still in the books and that’s a problem since other countries where blasphemy laws are used can point to Canada as proof that they’re not anomalies. By repealing it, Canada could send a message, just as Ireland did in October, that they support free speech in all forms.
Greg Oliver, President of the Canadian Secular Alliance, even launched an online petition on Parliament’s website in the summer of 2016 urging legislators to repeal the law. It got enough signatures that the Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada had to respond. It may have looked like a generic form letter, but they said the law would be reviewed.
And it now appears that Section 296 is headed to the ash heap of history.
Last year, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould proposed a revision of the Canadian Criminal Code that would include a repeal of the blasphemy law. Bill C-51 is long, but it includes this line:
Section 296 of the Act and the heading before it are repealed.
The bill has 81 parts, but that single line is all it would take to repeal the blasphemy libel law.
And now Bill C-51, with that line still intact, has passed through the Canadian Parliament. The Senate voted in favor of the bill yesterday. All that’s left now is a mere formality — a “Royal Assent” from Governor General Julie Payette — and the blasphemy law will go into the dustbin of history.
Ian Bushfield, the Executive Director of the BC Humanist Association, is already celebrating:
The passage of this Bill is a clear recognition by Parliament that archaic restrictions on freedom of expression have no place in Canada. Further, it serves as a sign that Canada condemns those theocracies around the world that are willing to punish someone for disagreeing with religious orthodoxy.
I should mention there was one other portion of the bill relevant to church/state separation. There’s a Canadian law prohibiting disruption of a religious service. Critics said this stifled dissent and wanted it repealed… but religious groups pressured politicians to keep the law as is.
Still, the version of Bill C-51 that has passed will get rid of blasphemy as a crime. That’s no small feat and the atheists who pushed for that to happen deserve a lot of credit.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Dorothy for the link. Large portions of this article were published earlier)