On May 11, Parliament took the first step towards abolishing the blasphemous libel provision of the Crimes Act. An amendment was accepted during the second reading of the Statutes Repeal Bill that section 123 of the Crimes Act 1961 be repealed.
The explanatory note on the supplementary order paper put forward by Labour’s Chris Hipkins stated that the blasphemous libel provision is “anachronistic and has fallen into disuse”.
“The overwhelming opinion of churches and religious groups is that faith does not need statutory protection of this kind,” the note continued.
Church leaders who have spoken on the issue have broadly supported the move, which was prompted by publicity around Stephen Fry being investigated by Irish police after a complaint of blasphemy, an investigation which was soon dropped.
It does seem pointless to have a law which is never used. The last prosecution for blasphemy in New Zealand, against the editor of the Maoriland Worker, was in 1922. That prosecution failed. And freedom of expression is a precious right, although it is always tempered by the need to uphold the common good.
Mr Hipkins told Parliament on May 11 of several plausible reasons for getting rid of the provision; New Zealand has been outspoken on the misuse of blasphemy laws in other nations, but such criticism is undermined when we have such laws on our statute books.
Laws around blasphemy also violate international covenants on civil and political rights to which New Zealand is a party, he added.
While the blasphemy statute appears headed for oblivion, it should not be assumed that respect for religious belief is unimportant in New Zealand. According to the last census figures, about 50 per cent of the population were noted as having at least one religious affiliation.
As the Statutes Repeal Bill progresses through Parliament’s committee stages before its third reading, at least MPs will be able to have their say on the issue. The explanatory note states that amending the law through an omnibus bill “is a more efficient use of the House’s time than alternative approaches, such as a member’s bill”.
But can Parliament be absolutely sure that ordinary New Zealanders, many of whom profess religious belief, don’t want the opportunity to have their say on this issue, which would be afforded by a bill going through a select committee process?
If the many professions of support from politicians for freedom of speech hold water, surely New Zealanders should have been given the freedom to tell their political representatives what they think about this issue — rather than making the “efficient use of the House’s time” a central consideration?
Nonetheless, as Parliament does away with the blasphemous libel provision, it is timely to recall what underpinned it in the first place — the Second Commandment of the Decalogue: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”
It would also be timely, as the statute is repealed, that all Christian pastors and priests remind their flocks of the importance of keeping this commandment, because the name of God is holy.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “his name is an expression of the respect owed to the mystery of God himself and to the whole sacred reality it evokes”.
Even Parliament acknowledges as such, when, in the prayer to open each day’s proceedings, the Speaker of the House addresses Almighty God: “We beseech thee to grant that we may conduct the affairs of this House and of our country to the glory of thy holy name . . . “
The reference to the holy name comes first in the prayer, ahead of “the maintenance of true religion and justice, the honour of the Queen, and the public welfare, peace, and tranquillity of New Zealand”.