Senate Passes Resolution Condemning “Blasphemy, Heresy, and Apostasy Laws” December 22, 2020

Senate Passes Resolution Condemning “Blasphemy, Heresy, and Apostasy Laws”

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that a bipartisan group of politicians came together in the house to pass House Resolution 512, calling for the “global repeal of blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws.” The (mostly symbolic) resolution had near-unanimous support, passing 386-3.

On Saturday, the Senate followed suit as well.

First, here’s the text of the bill:

Resolved, That the House of Representatives

(1) recognizes that blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws inappropriately position governments as arbiters of religious truth and empower officials to impose religious dogma on individuals or minorities through the through the power of the government or through violence sanctioned by the government;

(2) calls on the President and the Secretary of State to make the repeal of blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws a priority in the bilateral relationships of the United States with all countries that have such laws, through direct interventions in bilateral and multilateral fora;

(3) encourages the President and the Secretary of State to oppose —

(A) any efforts, by the United Nations or by other international or multilateral fora, to create an international anti-blasphemy norm, such as the “defamation of religions” resolutions introduced in the United Nations between 1999 and 2010; and

(B) any attempts to expand the international norm on incitement to include blasphemy or defamation of religions;

(4) supports efforts by the United Nations to combat intolerance, discrimination, or violence against persons based on religion or belief without restricting expression, including United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 (2011) and the Istanbul Process meetings pursuant to such resolution, that are consistent with the First Amendment to the Constitution;

(5) calls on the President and the Secretary of State to designate countries that enforce blasphemy, heresy, or apostasy laws as “countries of particular concern for religious freedom” under section 402(b)(1)(A)(ii) of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (22 U.S.C. 6442(b)(1)(A)(ii)) for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom, as a result of the abuses flowing from the enforcement of such laws and from unpunished vigilante violence often generated by blasphemy allegations;

(6) urges the governments of countries that enforce blasphemy, heresy, or apostasy laws to amend or repeal such laws, as they provide pretext and impunity for vigilante violence against religious minorities; and

(7) urges the governments of countries that have prosecuted, imprisoned, and persecuted people on charges of blasphemy, heresy, or apostasy to release such people unconditionally and, once released, to ensure their safety and that of their families.

The sponsor of that House bill was Rep. Jamie Raskin (MD), who had the backing of GOP Rep. Ted Yoho (FL). Raskin gave one hell of a speech about the bill two weeks ago on the floor of the House:

… H.R. 512 calls for global repeal of laws punishing blasphemy, heresy and apostasy, three religiously defined thought crimes that have no actual victims and thus no place in the criminal law of free nations. And yet governments in 84 countries, from Saudi Arabia and Iran and Somalia, to China and Russia and Bangladesh, still use laws like these to intimidate, arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate members of minority religions, disfavored faiths, and freethinkers.

Putting people in jail or even condemning them to death for religiously subversive speech was not unknown in the American colonies… Our law has gotten rid of obsolete offenses like blasphemy and apostasy because they have a purely religious character and do not refer to empirical social harms… In America today, people’s thoughts and words about religion are absolutely protected by the First Amendment. But in many parts of the world where religion is still actively weaponized, by theocratic and authoritarian governments, these imaginary offenses can still get you thrown into jail, harassed, and executed, or simply stopped and torn from limb to limb by state-sanctioned lynch mobs.

Religious people of the wrong faith are the most common victims of blasphemy and heresy laws. You might be a practicing Christian or Hindu in an officially Muslim state, like Libya or Afghanistan. Or a devout Muslim in a Hindu society like India…

… The value that unites us behind this powerful resolution, which will put the government squarely back in the fight to defend religious liberty all over the world and to oppose the spread of these blasphemy laws that are being used to persecute innocent people all over the globe.

In our country, the religious free exercise clause and the clause against the establishment of religion stand best when they stand together, because they both stand for the principle that no particular sect can seize control of state power and then persecute members of other religious groups.

But that is what’s happening in so many places all over the world, and our experience in the separation of church and state and standing up for the free exercise of religion is something that we can continue to proudly promote to the rest of the world. And we do have something that we think we can teach other nations that want to follow the path of democracy and freedom. As the U.S. works to advance human rights, it’s critical that we put this question of freedom of thought, freedom of conscience right at the heart of our efforts.

Everyone must be able to practice the faith or no faith at all without the threat of government violence and persecution. I’m pleased to support this excellent measure…

A similar resolution failed to get anywhere in 2015 and again in 2017 — despite bipartisan sponsorship.

But now the Senate has passed its own version of that bill, S. Res. 458, sponsored by Republican Sen. James Lankford (OK). Lankford is rarely on the side of church/state separation, but he’s right on this one. The resolution passed with unanimous consent.

The American Humanist Association celebrated the resolution’s success:

“The Senate’s adoption of Senate Resolution 458 solidified Congress’s commitment to ending the criminalization of blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy around the world,” shared AHA Director of Policy and Social Justice Rachel Deitch. “Republicans and democrats working together to get this done underscores our country’s continued commitment to championing the freedom of thought, religion, conscience, and belief for all people everywhere.”

Blasphemy laws exist in more than 80 countries and are the most explicit laws banning the expression of doubts or criticism regarding religion. In several countries, the penalty for being found guilty of violating these laws is death. Blasphemy laws are used to restrict the rights of not just the nonreligious, but minorities of all faiths and philosophies, women, LGBTQ people, and political dissidents.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation also applauded the passage:

“Blasphemy laws around the world have been relentlessly used to curb freedom of thought — and we freethinkers have borne the brunt,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor remarks. “These anti-blasphemy resolutions by Congress will put theocratic regimes on notice.”

I hope she’s right about that last part. We’ve spent four years focused on supposed persecution of Christians. While Christians are undoubtedly persecuted in some parts of the world, other groups have it much worse. The next Congress should follow what these resolutions say and put pressure on other nations to make changes on that front if they want any hope of U.S. aid or cooperation.

(Image via Shutterstock. Portions of this article were published earlier)

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