An offence at common law described by Bryne as:
"Blasphemy is the offence of speaking matter related to God, Jesus Christ, the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer, intended to wound the feelings of mankind or to excite contempt and hatred against the Church by law established, or to promote immorality."
Some of the earlier definitions and punishments were bound to fail in modern society as akin almost to the rigidity of Sharia law.
According to the Bible, the Old Testament, Levicitus 24:
"... he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, dying let him die. All the multitude shall stone him, whether he be a native or a stranger. He that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, ... let him die."
In his American law dictionary of 1839, John Bouvier described blasphemy in a vague manner that leaves the door wide open to judicial discretion and abuse:
"To attribute to God that which is contrary to His nature and does not belong to Him and to deny what does."
Not surprisingly, therefore, in 1917 (Bowman v Secular Society Limited), the House of Lords had to resolve the emerging controversy as to whether any criticism of the Church or God was sufficient to sustain a conviction of the offence of blasphemy, or whether honest, reasonable criticism was exempt from criminal liability. In the result, they set the law in the direction of the latter:
"There are no doubt to be found in the cases many expressions to the effect that Christianity is part of the law of England, but no decision has been brought to our notice in which a conviction took place for the advocacy of principles at variance with Christianity, apart from circumstances of scurrility or intemperance of language.
"... there is nothing contrary to the policy of the law in an attack on, or a denial of the truth of Christianity or any of its fundamental doctrines, provided such attack or denial is unaccompanied by such an element of vilification, ridicule or irreverence as is necessary for the common law offence of blasphemy."
In some states, statutes expend the definition to include any derogatory comment against the Virgin Mary or saints.
An example of a blasphemy statute is at Chapter 272, §36 of the General Laws of Massachusetts:
"Whoever wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumaciously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumaciously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumaciously 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."
With the slow but gradual evolution of freedom of speech doctrines, most states are tentative in their criminal prohibitions in regards to blasphemy. Canada, for example, as of March 2010, has but one reference remaining in its Criminal Code and it is limited to written material, libel (§296):
"Every one who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years. It is a question of fact whether or not any matter that is published is a blasphemous libel. No person shall be convicted of an offence under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject."
Even in jurisdictions that do have blasphemy prohibition laws, the state generally does not prosecute.
In full or partial theocracies, blasphemy is prohibited more thoroughly and strictly, especially where Sharia Law applies. For example, §295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code:
"Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the 'religious feelings of any class of the citizens of Pakistan, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations insults the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, or with fine, or with both.
"Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.
"Whoever, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person or makes any gesture in the sight of that person or places any object in the sight of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year or with fine, or with both."
- Bowman v Secular Society Limited 1917 AC 406
- Bryne, W. J., A Dictionary of English Law (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1923), page 122.
- Criminal Code of Canada, 1985 R.S.C., Chapter C-46, published at http://www.canlii.com/ca/sta/c-46/
- General Laws of Massachusetts, published at www.mass.gov/legis/laws/mgl/
- Sandberg, Russell, Law and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), page 133.
- Taylor's Case, 1 Vent. 293 (1676)