State/Church FAQ

Blasphemy

Blasphemy laws violate the First Amendment.  They promote religion, specifically Christianity, over nonreligion in violation of the Establishment Clause.  They prohibit speech in violation of the Free Speech Clause.  They violate the guarantees of religious free exercise and free press.  In general, blasphemy laws assault the First Amendment’s protection of the freedom of conscience.  

Robert Ingersoll captured the injustice of blasphemy statutes marvelously while defending C.B. Reynolds, a New Jersey man accused of blasphemy in 1887:

By making a statute and by defining blasphemy, the church sought to prevent discussion — sought to prevent argument — sought to prevent a man giving his honest opinion. Certainly a tenet, a dogma, a doctrine, is safe when hedged about by a statute that prevents your speaking against it. In the silence of slavery it exists. It lives because lips are locked. It lives because men are slaves.

“Every great idea starts out as blasphemy.” ~Bertrand Russell

“Where there is no belief, there is no blasphemy.” ~Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

“Blasphemy is a victimless crime.” ~FFRF T-shirt issued to condemn Feb. 14, 1989 fatwa on Salman Rushdie for the aforementioned work.

Writing in the 1760s, Sir William Blackstone, the authority on English law, defined blasphemy: “Blasphemy against the Almighty, is denying his being or providence, or uttering contumelious reproaches on our Saviour Christ. It is punished, at common law by fine and imprisonment, for Christianity is part of the laws of the land.’ ”

The few remaining, antiquated blasphemy statutes still on the books in the United States discriminate against non-Christians by protecting only that faith. By definition, blasphemy as a crime must discriminate. Religions are mutually exclusive. It is impossible for all religions to be true when they so thoroughly contradict each other. Any profession of faith in favor of one sect is blasphemy against another (i.e., you either believe that Jesus was the son of God, or not; that the angel Gabreel spoke to Mohammed, or not; that a dry cracker is the body of a non-corporeal being, or not). Therefore, blasphemy must favor one religion.

Establishing a religion

The crime, by its very nature, is intended to establish a particular sect and suppress the free exercise of religion. Blasphemy statutes place the religious sensibilities of the chosen sect on a pedestal. In effect, the statute allows the adherents a lawful, righteous indignation. As Bertrand Russell observed of the English common law, “clearly no one ought to speak ill of Christianity in such a way as to be likely to promote a breach of the peace. Those who use this argument do not, however, propose to extend the same protection to other religions. If you abuse Lenin to a Communist until he gets so angry that he hits you on the nose, the Communist is sent to prison. If the Communist abuses Christ to you until you get angry so that you hit him on the nose, it is again the Communist that is sent to prison.”

The court that in 1970 finally overturned Maryland’s blasphemy statute as “contrary to the terms of the First Amendment's prohibition of laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” explained the religious clause violations best:

Patently, the [blasphemy] statute was intended to protect and preserve and perpetuate the Christian religion in this State. It obviously was intended to serve and, if allowed to stand, would continue to serve as a mantle of protection by the State to believers in Christian orthodoxy and extend to those individuals the aid, comfort and support of the State. This effort by the State of Maryland to extend its protective cloak to the Christian religion or to any other religion is forbidden by the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment. As stated by former Associate Justice Fortas in Epperson v. Arkansas: ‘Government in our democracy, state and national, must be neutral in matters of religious theory, doctrine, and practice. It may not be hostile to any religion or to the advocacy of no religion; and it may not aid, foster, or promote one religion or religious theory against another or even against the militant opposite. The First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.’

Speech and Blasphemy

“How has the church in every age, when in authority, defended itself? Always by a statute against blasphemy, against argument, against free speech. And there never was such a statute that did not stain the book that it was in and that did not certify to the savagery of the men who passed it.” Robert G. Ingersoll (1887 Blasphemy Trial)

Blasphemy laws clearly violate the First Amendment protection of the freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is not absolute. Fighting words, threats, defamation, and libel are among the forms of speech punishable by law. Merely uttering a phrase that would once have been considered a sin against god (see below for a sampling) must now fall into one of these other categories if it is to be punished.

In a case challenging the Michigan law that made “profanely curs[ing] or damn[ing] or swear[ing] by the name of God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost” a crime, the court held that “God damn” was not speech justifiably prohibited by law. The court referenced a Supreme Court holding that states may not make a “single four-letter expletive a criminal offense,” and found “no principled distinction between the expletive in [that case] and the milder profanity in this case.” In a challenge to the Pennsylvania blasphemy statute — prohibiting corporate names containing “[w]ords that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lords name” — another court found the statute a violation of the Free Speech Clause of First Amendment because it restricted speech on the basis of viewpoint…”

The Supreme Court summed it up, “from the standpoint of freedom of speech and the press, it is enough to point out that the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them which is sufficient to justify prior restraints upon the expression of those views. It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures.” Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495, 505 (1952).

From the Mouths of Blasphemers

In the American colonies, punishment for blasphemy was severe. Massachusetts punished the crime with death until 1697, and later by boring through the blasphemer’s tongue with a hot iron. The Revolutionary War and America’s separation from England left the applicability of blasphemy law in the United States uncertain, and brutal punishments like this a very real possibility. Blasphemy “laws were the outgrowth of the system of religious intolerance that prevailed in many of the colonies. They prescribed religious, and not civil, duties. With the adoption of the Constitution and the establishment of constitutional governments in the States of the Union, these laws dropped into disuse, and any attempt to enforce them was frowned upon by the courts.” But before they dropped into disuse, brave American freethinkers and forbears of the tradition FFRF now upholds were convicted for blasphemy.

Thomas Jefferson Chandler of Delaware was found guilty in 1837 of declaring that “the virgin Mary was a whore and Jesus Christ was a bastard.” Another blasphemer, Mr. Ruggles, was convicted in 1811 for making a similar observation: “Jesus Christ was a bastard, and his mother must be a whore;”

Even Abner Updegraph’s tame utterance received condemnation in Pennsylvania in 1824: “the Holy Scriptures were a mere fable, that they were a contradiction, and that although they contained a number of good things, yet they contained a great many lies.”

The famed Abner Kneeland of Massachusetts, “to the great scandal and contumelious reproach of God,” was convicted in 1838 of uttering the following blasphemies:

  • “The Universalists believe in a god which I do not; but believe that their god, with all his moral attributes, (aside from nature itself,) is nothing more than a chimera of their own imagination,”
  • “Universalists believe in Christ, which I do not; but believe that the whole story concerning him is as much a fable and a fiction as that of the god Prometheus, the tragedy of whose death is said to have been acted on the stage in the theatre at Athens, five hundred years before the Christian era.”
  • “Universalists believe in miracles, which I do not; but believe that every pretension to them can be accounted for on natural principles, or else is to be attributed to mere trick and imposture.”
  • Universalists believe in the resurrection of the dead, in immortality and eternal life, which I do not; but believe that all life is mortal, that death is an eternal extinction of life to the individual who possesses it, and that no individual life is, ever was, or ever will be eternal.”

Michael X. Mockus (what a perfect name for one who mocked) was found guilty in 1921 for saying, among other things:

  • “Mary (meaning the Virgin Mary) had a beau. When her beau called one evening (both being young) he seduced her. He brought her a flower and put her in a family way. No woman can give birth to a child without a man.”
  • “Look how the priests teach you, the falsifiers, thieves. It is not possible that he could be of the Holy Ghost, there must be a man. A young Jew was the father of the Christ. No woman can have a child without a man; that never happened and never can happen.”
  • “The father of Christ was a young Jew and was no Angel Gabriel. Any girl who wants a child can call a Gabriel or some John.”
  • “All religions are a deception of the people.”
  • “There is no truth in the Bible; it is only monkey business.”

Throughout history, some of the greatest artists and writers have been accused of (though perhaps not criminally tried for) blasphemy including: Salman Rushdie (1989); James Kirkup, author of The Love that Dares to Speak its Name (privately prosecuted in 1977); Monty Python for The Life of Brian (1979, not formally charge, but banned); John Steinbeck for The Grapes of Wrath (banned, burned, and condemned after 1939 publication); H.L Mencken (pretty much constantly from 1899-1956); Charles Darwin for Origin of Species (published in 1859); Percy Byshe Shelley for Queen Mab (1813); Thomas Paine and his publisher Richard Carlile for The Age of Reason (Carlile’s trial was in 1818); Christopher Marlow, accused and arrested for atheism and blasphemy (1593); Galileo (1633); Aesop (according to the Life of Aesop, c. 1260); and Socrates (399 B.C.E).

If you’re accused of blasphemy, you’re in good company.

According to the Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Charles Lee Smith, in 1928, was the last person in this country to be convicted of blasphemy as a spiritual crime. Smith had moved to Arkansas to protest the anti-evolution statute that was about to be passed. (The statute did pass, but was overturned 40 years later by the Supreme Court in Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968). See Creationism/Evolution FAQ for more info). Smith rented a storefront and distributed leaflets: The Bible in the Balance, Godless Evolution, and The Ape Ancestry of Man. What got him into trouble was the sign he put in his window, “Evolution is True. The Bible’s a Lie. God’s a Ghost.” Smith was arrested for selling literature without a permit (even though he was giving the pamphlets away). In court, he refused to swear an oath, wishing to affirm instead. The judge, appalled at his atheism, refused to let him testify and fined Smith for distributing obscene literature. Smith fought every step of the way for his rights as an atheist and a citizen. After numerous threats, arrests, and an attack on his storefront, Smith was charged with blasphemy. Again he was not permitted to testify at his own trial and was convicted (although the conviction was later overturned).

In the most recent U.S. case, George Kalman wanted to name his film company “I Choose Hell Productions.” His choice was rejected by Pennsylvania because corporation names were not allowed to be “blasphemous.” In 2010, the court held that the blasphemy statute violated both the Establishment and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment.

Despite the numerous cases overturning blasphemy statutes and the fact that “it is proper to regard the statute before us not only as obsolete, but as repealed by implication in such essential parts as an advanced and enlightened civilization justifies with due regard for the personal liberties of the citizen,” several states still have blasphemy statutes on the books. The statutes are rarely enforced and would fall to a constitutional challenge. The following are statutes still on the books:

Massachusetts Blasphemy Statute, Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 272, § 36 reads:

“Whoever wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.”

Michigan Blasphemy Statute, MCLS § 750.102, reads:

“Any person who shall wilfully blaspheme the holy name of God, by cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”

Oklahoma Blasphemy Statute, 21 Okl. St. § 901, defines blasphemy as:

“Blasphemy consists in wantonly uttering or publishing words, casting contumelious reproach or profane ridicule upon God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the Holy Scriptures or the Christian or any other religion.”

South Carolina, S.C. Code Ann. § 16-17-520, makes it a crime to:

“use blasphemous, profane or obscene language at or near the place of [religious worship].”

Blasphemy prosecutions are still rampant in many other countries, and not just places like Pakistan and Iran. Ireland passed a blasphemy law in 2010 punishing the crime by a €25,000 fine. The United Nations debates a “defamation of religion” resolution every year. These legislatures should listen to FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, “You cannot be convicted of a victimless crime.”

By Andrew L. Seidel

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