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European Court of Human Rights rules that Austria can keep its blasphemy law

The European Court of Human Rights. Photo credit: CherryX, via.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has set a dangerous precedent in a new judgment about Austria declaring that free speech can be legitimately restricted if it causes ‘offence’ to ‘at least one’ religious adherent.

Humanists UK has criticised the decision as fundamentally at odds with the spirit and tradition of free expression in Europe, saying  the case will bolster those seeking greater international restrictions on the right to criticise religion. Humanists UK hopes the matter will be appealed to and overturned by the Grand Chamber of the European Court.

The ruling focused on the comments of a member of the Austrian Freedom Party who called the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, a paedophile, for marrying his third wife Aisha when she was six and consummating the marriage when she was nine. The Court concluded that the comments were primarily intended to disparage Islam and therefore could be legitimately deemed illegal in order to protect the freedoms of others.

The case pitched the right to freedom of religion or belief, including ‘to ensure the peaceful co-existence of religious and non-religious groups and individuals under their jurisdiction by ensuring an atmosphere of mutual tolerance’, against the right to freedom of expression.

Some commentators have misinterpreted the ruling as reimposing a blasphemy law across Europe but this is not the case. All the European Court has done is ruled that those states that do have blasphemy laws can maintain and enforce them. It does not re-impose blasphemy laws on states that do not have such laws, and does not in any way reverse the decision taken by Irish voters on Friday to repeal Ireland’s law. Nonetheless, the ruling is still a bad one, as it would have been hoped that the Court would move towards striking down blasphemy laws across Europe.

Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented, ‘Regardless of the particular facts of what was said by the claimant in this case, or how much we might like or dislike her politics, it should not be the case that freedom of expression is restricted in this way. It is vital that individuals are free to express their views on matters of religion or belief, with the only legitimate limits being the prevention of incitement to hatred or violence.

‘We very much hope this decision is appealed to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, and that the Grand Chamber instead recognises the importance of the free exchange of ideas about religion or belief in order to ensure that fundamental questions about meaning and purpose can legitimately be debated in free societies.’

Humanists UK is a founding member of the End Blasphemy Laws campaign, which campaigns against such laws around the globe.

FAQs about the ruling

Does this create a blasphemy law across Europe? No. With this judgment, the ECtHR has effectively upheld Austria’s domestic laws that in effect criminalise legitimate speech about certain religions, under a legal doctrine called the ‘margin of appreciation’, which essentially means letting countries interpret international laws in their own way. However, it does not apply Austria’s law to other countries with their own laws. What it does mean is that the ECtHR can no longer be relied on to overturn bad domestic laws and judgments concerning blasphemy.

Can the judgment be appealed? Yes, it could be appealed to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. Whether the judgment will be appealed is to be seen.

Was the judgment fair? No. We think this judgment sets a very bad precedent and undermines the European Convention the court is charged with upholding by in effect acknowledging a previously nonexistent right to protection of one’s ‘religious feelings’. This concept has no business infecting the court’s thinking about individuals’ Article 10 rights, and, indeed, runs contrary to the very spirit and purpose of human rights as an international enterprise.

What does this mean for other countries that have blasphemy laws, like Germany and Greece? It means the ECtHR can’t be relied upon to intervene in favour of free speech.

What does this mean for Scotland and Northern Ireland? Scotland and Northern Ireland continue to have blasphemy laws, although they haven’t been used in some time. These countries must make urgent efforts to repeal these laws if they mean to support the right to free expression. The example set by Irish voters on Friday, who overwhelmingly voted to repeal their blasphemy laws, should give comfort to the Scottish Government and Northern Ireland politicians by showing that repeal of blasphemy law is not a controversial proposition.

Does this affect the law in England and Wales? No. England and Wales repealed their blasphemy laws in 2008, and hate speech legislation only relates to speech which is acutely threatening, not that which is simply offensive or insulting. It is important that those charged with enforcing these laws understand the distinction, however, and Humanists UK will continue to train police forces in how to properly interpret the law and adequately support ‘apostates’ and the non-religious.

What can humanists do? Blasphemy laws need to be ended. Without domestic blasphemy laws, this judgment can have no effect anywhere in Europe. Blasphemy is still a crime in many parts of Europe, including Scotland, Northern Ireland, Spain, Germany, Greece, Poland, and Russia. Humanists UK works to challenge these laws through its international lobbying, as part of the End Blasphemy Laws coalition. Donate to Humanists UK and register your support for the End Blasphemy Laws campaign to help our work go further.

Notes

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on richy@humanism.org.uk or 07815 589636.

Read the court’s judgment: https://www.bailii.org/eu/cases/ECHR/2018/891.html

Read more about Humanists UK’s international campaign to end blasphemy laws: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/international-campaigns/

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

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