Monday, January 19, 2015

Canadian blasphemy trial a warning against smugness: Walkom

It’s not just Muslim fanatics who treat blasphemy as a crime. So does Canada.

Canadian blasphemy trial a warning against smugness: Walkom
Life of Brian
In 1980, a theatre in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., was charged with blasphemous libel for showing the Monty Python film, Life of Brian — a spoof on Jesus Christ. Ontario’s then-Conservative attorney general moved swiftly to stay the charge, but the blasphemy law remains, writes Thomas Walkom.
Many Canadians assume that only Muslim fanatics view blasphemy as a crime.
That assumption was bolstered after last week’s attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by two Islamic terrorists.
The pair said they were avenging what they called Charlie Hebdo’s insults against Islam’s prophet, Muhammad.
What isn’t as well known is that blasphemy is also a crime in Canada. The penalties aren’t as severe as those meted out in, say, Saudi Arabia.
But in Canada, you can still go to jail for up to two years for expressing what the Criminal Code calls blasphemous libel.
At least one person has suffered that fate.
He was a Toronto atheist named Eugene (Ernest) Victor Sterry. In 1927, he was jailed and then deported to England for the offence of insulting Christianity.
Sterry’s particular crime was to call God an “irate Old Party who thunders imprecations” and prefers the smell of roast cutlets to that of boiled cabbage.
He also called God a “frenzied megalomaniac.”
Jeremy Patrick, a law professor now teaching in Australia, tells the tale of the Sterry case in a scholarly article published five years ago by the Annual Survey of International and Comparative Law.
It’s a tale that reminds Canadians not to be too smug.
Blasphemy was first written into Canada’s Criminal Code in 1892. At the time, it was seen as a skilful compromise.
Criticizing religion in a “fair-minded” way that used “decent language” was deemed legal. But using language intended to insult the religious convictions of the majority was not.
Put simply, it was okay to challenge religion as long as the critique was made in a manner that did not offend too many voters.

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