New Zealand is one of those countries you wouldn’t think has a blasphemy law. But the penalty for a successful conviction of blasphemy is actually “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 that continue putting the feelings of constantly offended religious people over everyone else’s right to free speech.
Nearly two years ago, 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 have nullified the blasphemy law. But then-Prime Minister Bill English dismissed that effort, saying there was no “great urgency about it.” Parliament later followed his lead, with one MP saying the public deserved an opportunity to weigh in on the change… as if blasphemy was okay if backed by popular vote.
Freedom of speech shouldn’t be up for debate, and there was no legitimate reason to keep this law on the books. Bad ideas should only be defeated with better ideas, and the threat of imprisonment is a barbaric tool to wield against so-called blasphemers, even if there’s virtually no chance of that happening.
Here’s the good news: The repeal is a signature away from becoming a reality.
Last night, the repeal bill sponsored by Minister of Justice Andrew Little passed its Third Reading and now merely awaits “Royal Assent,” which is essentially a formality. When that happens, New Zealand will become the seventh nation since 2015 to repeal its blasphemy laws.
Andrew Little had argued that the repeal bill “ensures that the criminal law of New Zealand is kept up to date and reflects the values of the modern and diverse society that New Zealand is today. The bill does this by repealing three archaic laws from the Crimes Act. … The repeals are relatively straight forward, but they, understandably, generated a range of views from submitters, and this was particularly so, of all things, with the provision in relation to blasphemous libel. An offence that hasn’t been prosecuted for nearly a century, which conflicts with freedom of expression, and which almost certainly would never be prosecuted in the future, serves no useful purpose in the criminal law of New Zealand.
“It undermines this country’s ability to criticise other jurisdictions, when appropriate, for having blasphemy laws which result in persecution and injustice in those countries overseas. It’s out of place with New Zealand’s position as the bastion of human rights, including recognising freedom of expression and religious tolerance for all faiths. It is telling that, as this bill progressed through its legislative stages last year, both Canada and Ireland repealed their blasphemy laws. This simply reflects that modern democracies see no place for such laws in their criminal codes or constitutions. I’m confident that New Zealand will be aligning ourselves with like-minded liberal democracies across the globe and improving the criminal law in this country by this repeal.”
This is a big deal, and it wouldn’t have happened without pressure from groups that support the freedom of speech, including speech that some may find offensive.
(Image via Shutterstock. Portions of this article were published earlier)