The Canadian senate has passed legislation to repeal the country’s blasphemy law, which
outlaws “blasphemous libel” and provides for a prison term of up two years for anyone convicted
of the crime.
According to reports, the last time a person was convicted under Canada’s blasphemy law
was nearly a century ago, in 1927, although private plaintiffs have sought to rely on the law in a
number of instances since that time.
Canada joins several countries, including Denmark and Malta, that recently removed
their blasphemy statutes. Ireland also is about to remove its blasphemy law, following a public
referendum held in October.
Still, similar laws exist – and are enforced – in numerous other countries around the
world. In Spain, for example, a judge recently permitted a case to go forward against activist
Willy Toledo, who allegedly breached the country’s statute with Facebook posts that insulted
God and the Virgin Mary.
In a statement following the action by the Canadian senate, the U.S. Commission on
International Religious Freedom (“USCIRF”), an independent, bipartisan federal government
entity established by the U.S. Congress to monitor, analyze, and report on threats to religious
freedom abroad, applauded the passage of the Canadian legislation.
The chair of the USCIRF, Tenzin Dorjee, said, “Laws criminalizing blasphemy are
detrimental to religious freedom and other human rights, such as freedom of expression. These
laws make governments the arbiters of truth and conscience, and are ripe for abuse against
dissenting voices and members of religious minorities. USCIRF welcomes this step by the
Canadian government and urges all other nations to eliminate these pernicious laws.”
A report recently published by the USCIRF examined global blasphemy laws and
compared the text of blasphemy laws against such standards as freedom of expression, freedom
of religion or belief, vagueness of the law, severity of penalty, discrimination against groups, and
state religion protections. According to the USCIRF, most laws it studied failed to protect
freedom of expression, were vaguely worded, and carried unduly harsh penalties for violators.
The USCIRF concluded that, in all five of what it said were the “worst-scoring countries”
(Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Qatar), blasphemy laws aimed to protect the state religion
of Islam in a way that “impermissibly discriminates among different groups.”