New Zealand is one of those countries you wouldn’t think has a blasphemy law, but in fact, the penalty for a successful conviction of blasphemy is “imprisonment for a term not exceeding 1 year.”
Only once, in 1922, was a Kiwi prosecuted for the crime. Even then, he was found not guilty. So it’s not a law anyone needs to live in fear of, but the fact that it still exists carries symbolic weight. Getting rid of it would send a powerful message to nations which continue putting the feelings of constantly offended religious people over everyone’s right to free speech.
Earlier this month, after the Stephen Fry controversy in Ireland, there was an attempt to repeal the law by including it in a Crimes Act Amendment Bill. In addition to all the other changes the Bill would introduce, it would nullify the blasphemy law.
Prime Minister Bill English dismissed that effort, saying there was no “great urgency about it.”
Unfortunately, Parliament followed his lead.
Labour MP Chris Hipkins introduced an amendment to remove anti-blasphemy laws but both the National Party and the Maori Party voted against throwing it out of the Crimes Act.
Instead, the government wanted to go through the process of select committee and give the public the opportunity to submit on the potential law change.
The Humanist Society of New Zealand, which represented the 41 per cent of people in the country who were not religious, were appalled by the vote in Parliament.
President Sara Passmore said the decision to keep the law was a “clear vote against human rights”.
“By refusing to remove the blasphemy law from our Crimes Act, the Government is saying we are not free to criticise and challenge all ideas. This decision was backwards, and not in line with international trends. We think people, not ideas, should be protected”.
This decision is unbelievably idiotic. Who cares what the public has to say? Freedom of speech shouldn’t be up for debate, and there’s no legitimate reason to keep this law on the books. Bad ideas should only be defeated with better ideas. The threat of imprisonment is a barbaric tool to wield against so-called blasphemers, even if there’s virtually no chance of that happening.
Meanwhile, countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and India and Bangladesh can continue pointing to New Zealand to justify their own (actually harmful) blasphemy laws.
This was a missed opportunity. And until this law is repealed, it’ll continue to be a stain on the nation’s reputation.